A Conservative Trend, To Where?

I was sitting at work and thinking too much, again. On such occcasions, my thoughts naturally drift toward particular topics. I got to thinking about government, as I’m a government employee, albeit a mere minion. How government operates in the practical sense is a personal preoccupation.

I’ve been with the local city government for more than 15 years now (along with having lived in this town off and on since the mid-1980s). My civil service position offers perspective on certain issues. It forces me to think about local community a bit differently. I regularly see my coworkers and I know people who work in other departments. Most of my coworkers are union members. I even work along side my union steward a couple days a week. In talking to various people, I get a bit of the inside scoop on what is going on in the department and in city government (plus, I get a sense of what is going on in the community in general). This is fodder for my mind.

Right now, the parking department is doing repairs to the ramps. Another coworker told me that the ramps were only built to last a couple of decades. Some of them are now several decades old. They’ve built new ramps over the years, but the old ones remain. To get an idea about how old they are, as one of these ramps has been worked on, a large chunk of concrete came loose in a different section of the ramp and it landed on a car. If that had landed on a person, that would have been a quite the lawsuit. Obviously, repairs are needed and have been needed for a long time… or maybe entirely new ramps built to replace the old, but that would cost even more money.

Not being privy to the decision-making process, I’m left curious about what goes on behind the scenes, beyond what little info I’m able to gather. Many changes have been happening in recent years and it is sometimes concerning or simply perplexing.

Like in many other cities, a particular kind of conservativism has taken hold here, in spite of it outwardly being a liberal college town. The city council, from what I can tell, has always been dominated by local business interests, most especially the Downtown Business Association. It’s certainly not the supposedly ‘left-wing’ university professors and other intellectual elite running this town. Then again, local business owners around here don’t seem to be as right-wing as you’d expect in some places. This is still a liberal town and, as data shows, liberals have high rates of small business ownership. The conservatism that has taken hold has a vein of liberalism running through it (or is it the other way around, that this liberal town has a vein of conservatism running through it?). Besides, conservative-minded liberals aren’t all that rare, especially in a fairly small town in a rural Midwestern state, but that is another issue.

One aspect of this conservatism has been seen downtown. That is where can be found the pedestrian mall, the main public space. It has a permanent stage, a fountain, playground, and adjoining public library. It’s a popular gathering place, the heart of the community. But the idea of the public, all of the public, not just shoppers, freely using this public space has bothered many of the downtown business owners.

Through the Downtown Business Association, their voices get heard by local officials and their demands often get heeded. They helped push through a number of changes to discourage the low class people from hanging out too much downtown (by “low class” I mean average people, the common folk; not just bums, punks, and “ped rats”). They banned smoking in the pedestrian mall, banned people from setting their belongings down around them, and for a while banned dogs as well. They constricted the areas where panhandlers could do their thing. They made it illegal to lay down on a bench.

Still, that wasn’t enough. They removed a large number of the benches and picnic tables where the low class people convened and ‘loitered’ about. The place where that seating used to be is called the People’s Park because some decades ago, before the pedestrian mall was built, it was created by the public having demanded public space downtown (now it is part of the pedestrian mall). A new expensive, TIF-funded I might add, highrise was built and the People’s Park is now basically the front yard for rich people. That was also where a drum circle had met weekly for decades, but one of the rich people complained about the noise and the police made them leave, never to come back. I half expect to discover homeless spikes around one of these new fancy highrises popping up around downtown.

So, that is the mood right now of the local economic and political ruling elite. I should note that none of these changes were protested by any of the local liberal activists, and they have been known to protest about many other things (I’ve occasionally joined them, radical that I am). I suspect it’s the boiling frog scenario. These changes were put into place in a slow process stretched out over a number of years, many of them done covertly. For example, the seating was removed during some construction work and they were conveniently never put back. My brother at the time was working in CBD (Central Business District) as part of the Parks and Recreation Department and, according to him, management said this was done on purpose to destroy this community space.

That gives you the context for my thinking. My direct focus at the moment, however, is on fiscal conservatism. It’s a strange beast. Most people are familiar with it at the federal level, i.e., big government. Reaganomics used the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism. But what is that rhetoric supposed to mean? It’s hard to take it at face value.

In the eighties, Republicans had plenty of control (with a majority in the Senate for the first 6 years of the Reagan administration) and the Democratic Party wasn’t being obstructionist (some key Democrats were Southern conservatives who later became Republicans, which meant that Reagan began with a “working conservative majority” in the House). The Reagan administration was able to act according to their own vision and agenda. Many cuts were made to taxes, only to later raise taxes again. Some government funding was slashed, while other government funding was increased massively. All of this was done according to Reagan and his advisors. Republican budgets were passed and Reagan basically got the spending he requested; actually, slightly less. The national debt almost tripled in Reagan’s eight years in office. This is how the Reagan administration created the permanent debt that we still have. Worse still, along with a bigger military, big government in general grew bigger still, including an increase of public sector jobs.

It’s not as if this happened on accident. They knew what they were doing. No one was forcing their hand. The question is why did they want to do this. Obviously, Reganomics was the opposite of acting fiscally responsible. If fiscal conservatism doesn’t mean fiscal responsibility, then what does it mean? I’ve read about suggested theories. For example, some see it as Starve the Beast. It’s seen as a way of attacking government by forcing it into debt. In reality, this just means attacking the social safety net and public services. It certainly hasn’t led to the shrinking of big government, as that was unlikely ever its real purpose.

It’s not just an issue of big government at the federal level. Even small local government is attacked using this same rhetoric and the same tactics. I’ve seen this firsthand in this town where I live and work. Although a liberal town, the business-friendly city council hired a fiscally conservative city manager. He has been the city manager for a while now, long enough to implement his policies. This includes a number of things:

1) They’ve been decreasing city employee numbers through attrition. However, at the same time in the department I work in, the number of office and management positions has increased. Also, one of the problems in the parking department is that they even decreased the number of the parking enforcement attendants (AKA “meter maids”) who actually bring in money, and so they are bringing in less money through tickets while also having less presence in enforcing the parking laws, the latter of which (parking enforcement) one presumes is or should be the main purpose of the parking department.

2) Decreasing employees has been made possible through several means. Unsurprisingly, they’ve privatized much of the work city employees used to do.* I’m not sure this actually saves money, but it sure helps to weaken the labor union. It really just seems like the city is doing less, rather than being more efficient or whatever. The contracted workers don’t do a lot of the work that city employees used to do and neither do the remaining city employees. All the workers are stretched more thin. So, basic maintenance often goes undone. Here are a few examples: the stairwells in the ramps are dirtier, parking lines get painted less often, weeding is low priority, large areas of green space are no longer mowed, and some of the multi-use trails weren’t plowed this past winter; not to mention repairs such as to the ramp were long overdue. It’s all very basic work that isn’t getting done.

They’ve sought to get rid of employees through other means as well. One method has been to mechanize particular jobs, such as putting an expensive (both expensive to buy and maintain) automated system with pay stations in the ramps to replace cashiers, but the system is too unreliable and so they still need to keep some of the cashiers around. I assume that the main justification for the new system was to save money. Did it save money? It is far from clear, as the financial investment in this new system is massive. Basic parking for a smaller town like this easily could be operated with a much smaller budget than is required for these high tech improvements. Parking cars doesn’t necessitate some of the most advanced and expensive technology around. Such things can be nice, but they are far from essential. There is nothing fiscally conservative about investments so large that they may never pay for themselves in savings.

* Let me offer some interesting backstory.

There is a company that does the contract work in the former departments of Parking, Transit, and Central Business District—all combined into a single department now. It might be the same company that also is contracted by the Parks and Recreation Department. The company was hired by Parking/Transit management before there was ever any bidding. Then bidding took place, but management said it decided to go with that company because they were already doing the job. So, basically, it was a no-bid contract and the bidding was just a legal formality.

I don’t know that anything fishy was going on behind closed doors, but it is quite suspicious. It makes one wonder if there was cronyism going on. Of course, at the federal level, they often don’t even have to pretend to go through a bidding process and blatantly give contracts to cronies. More covert behavior is maybe required at the local level… or maybe I’m just being paranoid.

3) They have consolidated a number of departments.* This means there are fewer departments and so fewer department heads. However, in practice, this just means the remaining departments are much larger with more responsibilities and more staff (along with more expensive computers and other technology; specifically why they need more office and tech staff to operate/maintain it and more supervisors to oversee it all). Plus, this makes the remaining department heads all the more powerful in their greater authority and territory, especially as they are working closely with the city manager in making these decisions and implementing them. Isn’t it interesting that fiscal conservatism ends up growing the size of government departments and further concentrating power in the hands of a few? How does this shrink government or necessarily even save money?

* By the way, one coworker told me the best theory for some of the recent department consolidations.

The guy who was the head of the Parking Department is still the head of the new consolidated department, which is now called Transit, the former name of the separate department for buses and vehicle maintenance that was incorporated into Parking. Now, Refuse has also been brought into the fold, which is truly bizarre. Neither this department head nor any of the Parking/Transit staff below him knows anything about Refuse. Plus, going by what I’ve heard, it seems there may have been a number of occasions in the past when OSHA regulations were broken in management’s dealing with chemicals and waste disposal, although no investigation ever occurred. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

The only explanation that made sense of this departmental consolidation is that there was one commonality between Parking, Transit, and Refuse. They all receive major federal funding. I was told that the department head is highly skilled in getting federal funding, one of the most important skills of all for a bureaucrat.

4) The issue people in the local area are most familiar with are TIFs (Tax Increment Financing). It’s a way of giving temporary tax cuts to builders for specific building projects in order to incentivize development where it is needed. It’s original purpose was for blighted neighborhoods, but Iowa City has no blighted neighborhoods. Nor does Coralville, the adjoining town (essentially, the suburb for Iowa City) that has used TIFs to an even greater degree. All the TIFs go to major projects, such as upscale highrises (for expensive apartments and expensive stores). Also, a recent upscale grocery store also got a TIF. My father is the president of the local chapter of Kiwanis. He recently heard a city official speak (I think it was the assistant city manager or something like that). The city official admitted that every major project (i.e., big biz) expects a TIF to build anything. It’s become an expectation. Of course, no small business owner or low-scale builder received a TIF in this town. It’s become yet another form of cronyism via big biz subsidies.*

* This is odd and irritating for more than the obvious reasons.

If you give it a sleight amount of thought, you realize this means that these TIF-funded developers aren’t paying the taxes that pay for the services that the local government provides. Someone has to pay for them. So, already established businesses and smaller developers end up footing the bill, and in doing so essentially subsidize their competition.

This is at a time when the city government has lost revenue from other tax sources, because of a change in Iowa tax laws involving rental properties. This is the whole reason for tightening the public belt by reducing services, eliminating staff, privatizing work, etc. From the perspective of fiscal responsibility, this makes no sense. These TIF subsidies are in essence the giving away of money that will have to be offset somehow… or else the city will go into debt.

Furthermore, it’s not even that this TIF-funding is going to all big biz developers in a neutral fashion, as a favoritism has formed where TIFs have mostly gone to one particular developer, the Moen Group. The city council says it gives TIFs to this developer because he is reliable, but few other reliable developers would even bother because they know they’re systematically being excluded.

My father told me about one guy who wasn’t local and so had no crony connections. He wanted to build a hotel here. After dealing with endless red tape and other bureaucratic obstructionism, he gave up and decided not to build at all. Developers who have connections get TIFs and those who don’t have connections can’t even get their plans approved, much less get massive tax breaks through TIFs.

I suppose all of this is standard politics in this plutocratic and corporatist era. I’m used to hearing about this on the national level or even the state level. But it is so much more disheartening to see it with my own eyes at the local level, in my own community. This isn’t even a big city. It’s just a little college town surrounded by rural farmland.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t to argue for cynicism. I’m genuinely curious what it all means. Where is this coming form? What is motivating it? Why is fiscal conservatism so fiscally irresponsible in practice and it seems intentionally so? What is the link between fiscal conservative rhetoric and social conservative rhetoric? Furthermore, what is the close tie between conservatism and cronyism or even outright corporatism?

It feels like there is some larger force or vision behind all of this, transcending any single place and government. Particular policies and government actions don’t seem all that significant taken in isolation. Yet when put all together, it points toward something. What exactly?

None of this is necessarily intended as a criticism toward those who genuinely believe in conservatism, and certainly not intended as criticism toward those who genuinely believe in fiscal responsibility and good governance. My point is that conservatives themselves should be mad most of all. Even ignoring the fiscal irresponsibility, actual functioning conservatism so often seems unconservative and anti-traditional, especially in its embrace of laissez-faire capitalism with its privatization of the commons and undermining of the public good. If that is conservatism, then conservatism has nothing to do with traditional values and social order.

To be fair, some conservatives are bothered by all of this or at least parts of it. My conservative father has complained about what he sees here locally. We both live in the same town at present and so it comes up in discussions on a regular basis. Although my father fully supports fiscal conservative objectives, he doesn’t see this town as a shining example of fiscal conservative success. It doesn’t bother him that city employees are eliminated or that work is contracted out. Still, even he can’t shake the feeling of a cronyism that runs this town.

This is something that should bother all local citizens, across the political spectrum. Where is the outrage? Where are the protests? Heck, where is the local media to report on any of this?*

* One coworker I know well, my union steward, has wondered about that last question, in particular.

He has noted some of the close personal ties between city officials and those who run the local newspaper. He has also observed that the employees of the local newspaper get a special parking permit that no one else has, not even other permit holders from downtown businesses. The best coverage,  for example, of local TIFs came from a small alternative publication and not from the main local newspaper.

But that is me being paranoid again.

It would be simple to see this as good versus bad, as evil cronies against the common man. But that misses the point. All of the people I’ve met who work in city government, including management, seem like nice people and many of them are quite dedicated to their jobs. I’d say the same thing about local business owners I’ve met, some of whom are part of multigenerational family businesses.

I think it is more of a systemic problem. It’s how our society functions. It’s how present capitalist systems are designed, especially as they transition into brutally competitive globalization. It’s a particular social Darwinian worldview that is built into our culture, but is taking over many other societies as well. One could argue that most people are simply acting in the way that makes sense under these conditions and according to these biases.

Maybe most of the people involved really do hope to shrink government, lessen costs, and cut taxes. If so, why does that rarely materialize? Neither Reagan nor any other conservative has accomplished any of these things. It’s not clear that they even seriously tried. Still, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. As these policies don’t lead to what conservatives claim to want, then why do they keep pushing them in doing the same over and over? Is this really a failure? Or is there some other purpose? If so, what and whose purpose? Do conservatives (and the conservative-minded) even understand their own motivations? Do they know the master they serve? What is this vision and what is driving it? Also, why do so many Democrats and liberals seem to go along without any fight?

More importantly, what kind of society is being built in the process? What will the end result look like? Is it a world that I’d want to live in? Is it a world most people would want to live in? Do any of these changes make the nation and local communities better in any way?

The most problematic part of all this is that almost none of this has been part of public debate. In Iowa City, no plans were publicly presented to be considered and voted upon. No reasons were given for what government officials are hoping to accomplish. There is obviously some vision or agenda, but apparently only insiders know what it is. Even in the department I work in, management rarely explains much of anything. Changes just happen.

All of this is being forced onto an unwitting public. Maybe it’s the public’s fault for not paying enough attention, but still that isn’t much of an excuse for those who take advantage of this state of affairs. Certainly, there is nothing democratic or even libertarian about any of this. It’s simply people with power doing whatever they want without transparency or accountability, that is to say realpolitik.

What is happening in my town is a microcosm of what is happening all across the United States and in many other countries as well. The changes are too wide-ranging and concerted to be dismissed lightly as just politics as usual. Many have argued that the culture wars have been an intentional distraction, for all Americans across the political spectrum. No matter which side wins on the social issues, the monied elite will always win on the fiscal issues.

This is why it is in a sense irrelevant what people think about gay marriage, marijuana legalization, or whatever else. It doesn’t matter that the town I live in is socially liberal (nor that my state was one of the few to legalize gay marriage before it became a federal decision). It doesn’t matter that the entire country is becoming ever more socially liberal. None of that touches upon the fundamental social order or challenges the entrenched power within the system.

On top of that, fiscal issues are harder to grasp and to use for rallying people, even though most Americans are also rather liberal on many fiscal issues (e.g., according to polls, most Americans believe that the distribution of wealth is unfair and something should be done about it, including raising taxes on the rich). Despite its importance, it is rare for a straightforward public debate to happen about fiscal issues and hence few seem to notice what is happening and what it all adds up to.

There is something about fiscal issues that makes people feel so powerless and apathetic. Part of the problem is that fiscal issues often seem boring and maybe are intentionally portrayed by the corporate media in boring ways. I don’t know. It seems strange that all of society can be transformed before our eyes and most people act as if they don’t notice or can’t be bothered to care.

* * *

Update (5/20/19): The city manager has left. Some of the department heads have changed. Yet the same pattern of political behavior continues on as before. Let me share a more recent example.

The city hall was located on a square city block that is prime real estate almost entirely owned by the city government, other than one small corner. City Hall was built when the town was smaller and soon will require a larger building. They had plenty of property surrounding the building to expand. So, what did they do? That prime real estate was sold to build yet another highrise for rich people, presumably TIF-funded as well. This will eventually force a new city hall to be built elsewhere, at a less optimal location. But what really matters is that a local crony was able to make immense profit from gaining control of public property for private gain.

There is another example also involving the pedestrian mall. They finally got around to replacing some of the benches. What the city council chose as replacements are benches specifically designed to be impossible for the homeless to sleep on (or anyone else to take a nap), what is referred to as “hostile architecture” (such as homeless spikes). The city council lied about their motives. When a local Christian group did a freedom of information request, they were able to get the meeting notes where city council members openly stated this was their purpose. On this one incident, there was finally some public backlash. The city council was shamed into undoing some of their moral depravity. They promised to put back some of the old old-style benches.

Part of the backlash probably has to do with a shift in public mood with our being several years into the Trump administration. The average American is beginning to make the connection between local problems and national problems, a sense of widespread moral failure. For all that remains the same, even this small change in public awareness is more than welcome.

* * *

Public Good & Democratic Government (pt. 2)

The Mechanized City

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy
(more on local gentrification)

Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

Officer Shoots Homeless Man: Comments

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

Old Forms of Power

* * * *

Bonus article:

‘By the People’ and ‘Wages of Rebellion’
by George Packer

Big Government Subsidizing Low Tax Red States

Here is an issue I’ve known about for years. The mapping of the data really gets me thinking, despite my have thought about it many times before.

New Study Confirms Red States Take More From The Federal Government Than Blue States

States in green or closer to green on the map above are less dependent on the federal government. States in red or closer to red on the map above are more dependent on the federal government.

So, what does this map show? It’s how much states receive in federal funding in ratio to how much they give in federal taxes. This isn’t new data, but the paper it is based on is a new assessment of the data.

I don’t want to write a long piece about this. It just is mind-blowing the difference between rhetoric and reality. States that preach small government and low taxes manage to implement such policies by being subsidized by the other states.

Many things could be said about this. One can point out the divide between blue and red states. Or one could point out the divide, in the Eastern half of the country, between the historical Civil War boundary, especially the stark contrast seen with the South. But I just don’t know. There are all kinds of factors to be considered.

I look at this map and it makes me wonder about what it means. It throws a wrench into the entire works of the mainstream frame of big versus small government. A deeper discussion about the data would be worthwhile, I’m sure. And, for damn sure, I’d like to see more and better public debate about it all across the media.

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

My brother, Nate, and I were bicycling on Iowa’s country roads. We were on a day outing. We met in the Waterworks Prairie Park by the Iowa River, from where we traveled to a nearby town (Hills, Iowa) and then crossing Coralville Dam. On the way we passed farmland mixed with housing, and we talked as we cruised along. Healthy exercise and fresh air.

Iowa is one of the best states in the country for bicyclists, including professionals wanting to train, which is why there is such things as Ragbrai here (my brother has been biking a lot in preparation for that particular event). The reasons Iowa is great for biking is because of how the roads were planned in mostly square sections that goes back to the earliest settlements and farmland (Iowa was the first state or one of the first to be planned out in this manner). This type of planned community structure and civic infrastructure is part of the Midwestern DNA, unlike the haphazard (and litigation-prone) metes and bounds system that defined the early development in the South (legal problems with land ownership were behind Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln’s family leaving Kentucky).

The other thing Iowa is known for are all these small towns that are regularly situated in the counties, even in rural areas. Many of these farm towns have died out or are in the process of dying, but many of them still survive. The surviving farm towns, besides the county seats, have often had to reinvent themselves or else become ghosts of their former selves. Even with the rural population drain, the massive road infrastructure is maintained because it is required for the movement of farm equipment and farm produce.

One of the results of the rural population drain is that many of the young have left. Those left behind are older and getting older every year. These small towns are typically filled with fewer young families, especially as the family farms have been bought up by large corporations.

This has created many small communities with little sense of the future. The old people there remember the way things used to be. They fear and resist change, but in doing so they are typically unwilling to invest in the future. Some of these towns essentially collectively commit suicide because the problems they face are so great and no one wants to take responsibility to invest in the next generation that is likely to move away. It is a vicious cycle of self-destruction or else, in some cases, an unavoidable downward spiral.

The shrinking populations have a cascade of effects, but let me first describe how it used to be.

Iowa counties were designed so that any farmer could drive his horse-drawn wagon to the county seat and back in a single day. The Amish living here still travel by wagon, and under these conditions their traditional communities thrive. Counties are relatively small, but many counties used to have a number of towns where basic needs to could be regularly taken care of. In a typical town, there would be such things as grocery and farm supply stores, farmers’ markets, gas stations, repair shops, public schools, public libraries, etc. These were very civic-minded places, somewhat modeled on the New England ideal of local democracy.

The heart of the counties are the county seats where the courthouses and such are located and where parades and fairs are held, but the heart of communities used to be the public school and the downtown. The pride of any decent-sized town was the local high school football or baseball team. However, to save money, many of the small schools have been shut down and replaced by centralized larger schools where kids are bussed in from far away. This has had a terrible impact on these traditional farm communities. All that is left of many of the remaining towns are the houses surrounding a now mostly emptied downtown with a few struggling businesses. The Walmarts have put the final nail in the coffin of most of the small downtowns.

This has been true all across the Midwest. My dad grew up in Alexandria, Indiana. It was once declared Small Town USA. In the decades following the post-war boom era, factories have closed down or laid off workers. My uncle has remained their because of his love of the place, but he struggles to make money with his dentistry business. Most of these small towns used to have dentists and doctors with offices in the downtown, but rural residents these days typically have to travel a lot further than they used to just to get basic healthcare, if they get it at all.

To make matters worse, meth addiction has become an epidemic in the rural Midwest. Meth is a drug that grows amidst desperation, spreading that desperation further like weeds that even Roundup can’t kill. The best options available in such a desperate environment is to work at the slaughterhouse or work at Walmart or else work multiple jobs trying to support your family which leads you to be tempted by meth to give you that extra boost when you have no energy left. Of course, you can also go into the meth making business itself as meth can be cooked up easily in any kitchen or trailer.

Desperation also breeds politicians like Steve King. He is congressman of a district in western Iowa, the epitome of everything I describe. That district has the oldest average age of any population in the entire country. The reason Steve King is such an asshole is because he represents ornery old people who live in dying towns where there is absolutely no hope for the future. You have to have pity on a population so distraught that they would repeatedly vote for someone like Steve King. That is a group of people begging to be put out of their misery. They are angry at a world that has left them behind and they have every reason to be angry, even though in their anger they embrace a demagogue who can’t and won’t solve their problems.

These aging rural folk mostly come from farm families that have farmed for generations. They are the last of their kind. In many cases, their family land has been sold and their children have left them. Society no longer has any use for them and so they have no use for society. The shrinking few of the next generation that have stuck around aren’t following in the family tradition of being independent farmers. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer vision of America is a thing of the past. These last rural holdouts embrace reactionary politics because they are fighting for a lost cause. Only in fiction are lost causes ever noble.

Reactionary politics doesn’t result in constructive and sustainable policies. Fiscal conservatism becomes the rally cry of communities in retreat, communities full of people who have lost faith in anything greater that can be achieved. Building and maintaining town infrastructure is something that is done when it is seen as an investment that will one day payoff. To the reactionary mind, though, all change is seen as loss and destruction, even when it involves basic maintenance and simple improvements. Normal government functions become battles to be endlessly fought against. Local democracy can’t survive under such conditions, and so the remnants of civic-mindedness devolves into struggles for power. If the only self-respect in one’s view is resistance and refusal, it will be seized with a death grip.

Nate and I were discussing some of this on our jaunt about the countryside.

He lives in one of those small towns, West Branch. It used to be a very thriving town since the railroad used to pass right through the middle of it, but the tracks have been pulled up and it has partly become a bedroom community of Iowa City (where the University of  Iowa is located and where I live). West Branch is the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, the 31st US president. There is a federal park there that includes Hoover’s boyhood home and some other original buildings, and the park brings in some money into the town.

Having been in West Branch for many years now, my brother has gained an inside view on what goes for small town life these days. His town lacks the desperation of some towns as there are jobs to be had in the larger, more prosperous cities nearby. I doubt there are many people left in West Branch who make a living by farming their own land. Still, the old families remain and they try to maintain their grip on their community.

This plays out in a number of ways. The older generation resists improving anything for fear that it will attract more people to move into town. They’d rather let the town crumble than risk it growing into something new, prosperity and hope for new generations be damned. Others in town, often newcomers like my brother (and all families are newcomers who haven’t been there for generations), want to improve the town for they are mostly young parents and young professionals who are hopeful about the future.

It is a battle of the old power elite against the rising of a new generation. The old power elite consists of a group of families that have had immense influence. They hold many of the political positions and they treat the volunteer fire department like a private club. These families are represented by a generation of old white guys, many of whom are in their 70s. They are known as the ‘Dinosaurs’. The mayor died last year. Some of the older city council members don’t have have many years left before retiring, going senile or dying. It is a government run by nepotism and cronyism, a typical good ol’ boys network.

West Branch is a perfect example of fiscal conservatism. There is always money for the fire department, of course. It is the pride and joy. Otherwise, there is never money for anything and there is great resistance to raise taxes. Even when a federal grant was available, they wouldn’t take it to fix the sidewalks. Part of the reason was because the federal government has requirements about how work is contracted out which means they couldn’t use their typical practice of cronyism. So, the sidewalks go on crumbling.

The local government is governed by those who don’t want to govern. They see their sole purpose is to obstruct progress and maintain their control, and they have been very good at achieving this end.

For some reason, the city government likes to give public property away. They gave away the city park to the Herbert Hoover National Park because they didn’t want to spend the money to maintain it such as keeping it mowed, but now every time they want to have a public event at the former city park they have to get permission from the local representative of the federal government. They were donated a large old building and the property it was built on, a former retirement home as I recall. The land was worth $100,000 and the building was worth a $100,000. They gave it to one of their cronies for $5,000 which means the city took a loss of $195,000 and that is a lot of money for such a tiny town. Their justification was that this crony sometimes did volunteer work for the city. I wish someone gave me $195,000 when I volunteered.

They don’t like the idea of public property. I guess it sounds too much like communism. If they could give the entire town away, they might consider it as long as it went to a member of one of the old families. As libertarians like to say, government is the problem. These Dinosaurs are taking seriously the idea of shrinking their local government so much that it can be drowned in a bathtub. Some might call that self-destruction, but they would consider it a victory.

Like many conservatives, they see salvation in big business. The West Branch city council gave TIF agreement to a company with the promise that they would hire 100 residents. The company didn’t live up to their end of the deal when they laid off some people, but they gave the excuse that it wasn’t their fault because of the economy. So, the city council extended their TIF again. Only after the company broke their promise a second time did the city council revoke the TIF. Meanwhile, the city loss massive amounts of money in the taxes not paid.

If you add up all the money the West Branch government has given away or lost, it might add up into the millions. However, whenever any citizen group or committee seeks to do anything productive, the city council and the mayor will claim there isn’t enough money. That is fiscal conservatism for you.

The government of this town does the absolute minimum that it can get away with while keeping taxes as low as possible for town residents. They can get away with this partly because they live in the same county as the more prosperous Iowa City which means they get more county funds than they pay in county taxes. All of this pays for the public schools in town and helps pay for other basic maintenance. All that the West Branch government has to concern itself is that its few streets have their potholes filled and the snow plowed in the winter. The sewers probably need replacing and water pipes break every so often, but the infrastructure works well enough most of the time. The neat thing about infrastructure is that once it is built it can be neglected for decades before it becomes so big of a problem that it can no longer be ignored and shunted off onto the next generation.

A town like West Branch is a metaphor for our entire country. Like the rest of the country, it isn’t a bad place to live. The old white guys in West Branch government are like the old white guys in government everywhere else. This old political elite is part of a very large generation, the Baby Boomers (although the oldest of them are Silents or on the cusp), who have held onto power so long because they were followed by an extremely small generation, GenXers.

Many people, especially conservatives, like to idealize rural life. These days, though, rural life goes along with a lot of dysfunction, the side effects of globalized capitalism. Nearly everything is being concentrated into ever growing corporations, farms being no exception. Small independent farmers and business owners are becoming a rare species, the family farm and business rarer still. With factory farming, the land is being farmed even more intensively which means even less sustainably. I often doubt that we are on the road to long-term prosperity. It can feel that we are as much fighting against so-called ‘progress’ as we are looking for a progress worth fighting for. It is hard to blame old rural people for lashing out at a world they no longer understand.

I don’t think it is all doom and gloom, though. There are still plenty of small independent farmers fighting the good fight. Some have gone organic in looking for a niche market to make enough profit. There has been a growing market for locally grown produce. If the Amish can thrive in this modern society, there are far from being without hope. Besides,  even small towns like West Branch have their up-and-coming young generation looking to the future rather than the past. overwhelmed as they may seem by the old folk.

We typically look to the big cities on the coasts in determining the winds of change, but there remains a significantly large part of the US population living in rural states and not all of them are aging reactionaries. Driving through Iowa, one still sees plenty of progress. Many rural people gladly embrace new technology such as putting up wind turbines or renting their land out for those who put up wind turbines and beneath these behemoths the cows graze. Iowa is a leader in wind energy and most data shows the state doing relatively well compared to the rest of the country. The rural states to the west of the Mississippi fared extremely well even during the economic downturn. The economy could entirely collapse and there still will be a demand for corn, soy and wheat.

More important to my mind, I would note that the Midwest has been for a very long time one of the breeding grounds for progressive, populist and even radical politics. That fiercely independent spirit remains, even if the older generation has forgotten about it. If I were too look for the direction this country is turning toward, I’d probably look to a state like Wisconsin. The battles of local politics can be as inane as national politics, but I think the local politics might have more impact than we realize.

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government

Here is a local issue that effects me personally, but it’s very similar to local issues all across the country.

Union calls city layoffs ‘deplorable’
Proposal would eliminate five full-time positions

“Miller says the union wants the city to explore other cost-cutting options before laying off workers, and he points to “extras” such as city vehicles driven by the city manager and police and fire chiefs, and the temporary specialists hired during the flood recovery process as areas that could be axed. Miller also questioned the immediate need for capital improvement projects like the $30 million parking facility slated for downtown and the multimillion dollar pedestrian ramp recently built over Interstate 80 on North Dodge Street.

““Not all avenues have been explored that we need to explore yet before we start laying people off,” Miller said Thursday. “That’s my opinion. We’d like to sit down with the city, get in touch with employees and see if we can find any cost-saving measures and suggestions they may have to avoid layoffs.”

“Vic Zender, the transit worker whose job is on the chopping block, has worked for the city for 15 years and said he is the city’s lone transit body mechanic. His job includes repairing not only the city buses but maintaining other vehicles, such as police cars.

““Since it’s a one-man operation, I cover everything for the city,” Zender said. “It doesn’t seem logical for the budget cut to come from that one area, since it’s a one-person area and it serves the whole city.”

 * * *

I have an insider’s view. I’ve worked for Iowa City Parking for more than a decade, and so I’ve been there longer than some of the people in the department’s management and longer than many people in the local government. I’m not even surprised by the changes that are happening. I saw it all coming. Some of the changes are even things I talked about with a supervisor years ago before I even knew the city officials were considering such changes. It was just inevitable that changes would come. These changes involve factors beyond mere economic challenges.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

In attitude, I’m more or less a typical Midwesterner. And it is as a Midwesterner that I care about what happens in this Midwestern town.

In terms of politics, I’m liberal-minded and a union member, although I don’t vote for Democrats (actually, I’m supporting Ron Paul at the moment, not that such things should matter). Despite being on the left, I often have discussions with right-libertarians and fiscal conservatives, and so I know that perspective.

My ‘liberalism’ is of the moderate variety that seeks compromise and agreement, win/win instead of win/lose. Also, my ‘liberalism’ crosses over with libertarianism, especially with issues of civil liberties but I’m also suspicious of big government when it comes to collusion between the public and private sectors (hence the Ron Paul support). If I had been alive when the GOP was a moderate party, I would have voted for Eisenhower (corporatism and military-industrial complex being of the same cloth).

Even as a union member, the union angle isn’t my primary concern here. I am glad to see the union speak out, but I’m not writing this post from the perspective of a union member. Besides, it’s not as if I’m a union representative or anything. I’m not even an active member of the union. The union is small and very few employees belong to it. The union doesn’t even have the power to strike. Mostly the union just negotiates contracts. This is a rare moment when the union makes an offical criticism of the city government. And the reason the union spoke up is because they felt decieved and betrayed.

Even as a city employee, I’m not thinking about this in personal terms. It is true that the changes the city government is making threatens my job. My position will be eliminated in the near future and it’s not yet clear if I’ll be offered another position or if it will be a position I will want. My particular job isn’t being outsourced but is instead being eliminated because human cashiers are being replaced by self-pay stations (the future is here and the machines are taking over). My department is Parking which a while ago was combined with Transit, the former runs the parking ramps and the latter the buses. It is personal to me, of course, but my concern here is more as a citizen who happens to have an inside view of the situation.

It is, however, the personal angle that causes me to write this as a blog instead of as a letter-to-the-editor. As a city employee who still has a job at the moment, I have absolutely no desire to draw too much attention to myself and I for damn sure don’t want to be the center of attention. I made some comments to the article in the local newspaper, but that is as far as I wanted to take it. This post is a continuation of and an expansion on what I said in those comments.

 * * *

I’m skeptical of big government (as I’m skeptical of big business) and I’m strongly critical of our present corrupt political system on the national level, but I think about local government very differently than federal government. If democracy is possible (something I occasionally doubt), it is most likely to function well on the local level. I’m very Midwestern in my faith in community and grassroots democracy. I don’t hate government, but I do want a democratic government that is responsible to the local community and serves the public good.

I know the people who manage parking/transit. They are good people dealing with a difficult problem. Everyone is struggling with the economy in its present state, but that is all the more reason we should be careful about the decisions we make in duress. It’s true we must solve the short-term problem of saving tax-payer money. However, if we don’t use enough foresight, we might find that short-term solutions could lead to unintended long-term problems. The public good is a very precarious thing, difficult to create and maintain while easy to destroy and corrupt.

Iowa City, like many communities, is in a tight spot. But such difficult times can be opportunities when great improvements are made because people become aware of the need for change. In the past, this led to great public good such as the use of government funds to renovate downtown and build the ped-mall. We should be wary of wasting tax-payer money, but we should be also careful about slowly picking away at the government services that produce public good for our community.

Outsoucring easily becomes a step toward privatization. I don’t know if outsourcing is always bad, but we should consider the potential results of the choices we make, esepecially when those choices become permanent. Do we want to move in the direction of privatizing public services? It’s quite likely true that a private company could operate parking ramps, buses and even libraries cheaper than the government. But that doesn’t mean that a private company would necessarily charge less (might even charge more) to customers who use those services. And they might not even offer a better service (might even offer a worse service).

I take these issues seriously. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why the city operates parking ramps when private companies could do so. The reason the government does so is because the government has been able to offer a high quality service at a low cost to the public, something that a private company probably couldn’t accomplish. The government can do this because the government isn’t concerned about profit. So, do we or do we not value this service provided by the city? Oursourcing suggests private companies can do a better job in terms of offering cheaper services even if not a better service. If saving money is what the local government cares about, they could entirely privatize these departments and they would never have to worry about costs again. Why not?

I don’t mean this just or even primarily as a criticism of outsourcing. I mean this as a serious set of issues that should be publicly debated by the community rather than decided in private by non-elected government officials. We are at this moment experiencing changes that will determine the future of Iowa City. This is something everyone should be concerned about and so everyone should be involved in. I offer my opinions on this matter as both a public servant and as a concerned citizen.

* * *

The following is actually the first comment I made. Although I stand by the truth of what I wrote, I felt like I was being too harsh or too absolutist or else just no showing my full perspective. This led me to writing the above thoughts for balance. So, here is my initial gut-level response:

This is what I don’t understand. If something is done for the public good and can’t be done well by the private sector, then it should be publicly operated entirely. If something isn’t being done for the public good or can be done well by the private sector, then it should be privately operated entirely.

The city has sought to outsource work for both parking and transit (i.e., buses). If the city keeps outsourcing these jobs, obviously the city is saying that they think the private sector can do a better job than the city can do. The only rational reason why the city doesn’t simply privatize the entire departments by letting them be made into private businesses is that the city wants to keep the profit while using cheap outsourced labor.

The city likes outsourced labor because it isn’t unionized and the labor is cheap because such jobs rarely have good pay or good benefits. But mere profit isn’t a good reason for the city to continue operating these departments. Fiscal conservatism has caused a warping of the very purpose of public services run by the government.

Either privatize these departments or keep the jobs in the city. It is the mixing of private and public that has led to corporatism on the national level (especially with contractors in the military). Once businesses develop a dependency on government contract work, a cozy relationship develops between certain sectors of business and the government. Once money starts flowing back and forth between politicians and business owners, it is unlikely to lead to positive results in the long run. Do we really want our local government copying the bad habits of our federal government? Do we really want to risk the possibility of increasing corporatism in Iowa City?

* * *

More than anything, what is on my mind is the issue of community. As a liberal-minded left-winger (or as socialist-leaning left-liberal), I realize community isn’t something that happens by accident. This goes way beyond this or any other recent issue. For many years (much of this past decade), I’ve been thinking about the importance of community and what it means on the local level. I’ve even written about it before on a number of occasions (for example: Public Good vs Splintered Society).

The issue of community, however, has become particularly important with recent problems of economic downturn and political divisiveness. Add to that the risk to our very democracy, especially of the local grassroots variety, from rabid fiscal conservatism and corrupt neoliberalism. On the local level, there have been many things that have come up.

Most recently, for example, there is the plans to build yet another multi-use apartment building (Red Avocado, Defunct Books to make way for new multi-use building: Iowa City bookstore, restaurant ordered to leave). This is about the endless conflict between community and capitalism. There are already many multi-use apartment buildings and many aren’t even filled to capacity, specifically the ground-level storefronts. There is a boom in student numbers at the moment which has promoted growth, but this boom isn’t likely to last. More importantly, most of these new apartment buildings aren’t being built to last as long at the houses that they are replacing. It’s quite likely that these apartment buildings will not be maintained once a profit is made out of them which means they almost inevitably will fall into disrepair and get bought up by slumlords. Neighborhoods, like communities, are hard to rebuild after they have been destroyed. Besides, who wants a future city filled with decrepit apartment buildings where once beautiful old buildings used to be.

Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understnad its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.

I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.

Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community. They often don’t understand why laissez-faire capitalism shouldn’t always or usually trump local grassroots democracy, why individual decisions shouldn’t necessarily trump community decisions. They have faith in laissez-faire capitalism and it can take a lot to shake that faith.

There is a trade-off that should be acknowledged and taken seriously. It isn’t just a decision to be made by individuals. The impact of these decisions will be communal and will last a very long time, for generations in fact; the direction we choose to take as a community might even be felt a century from now by the future residents of this community. For this reason, these decisions should be made by the community. If the community doesn’t want a neighborhood destroyed, why should they allow it be destroyed?

It’s not even about being for or against free markets. What is about is how one chooses to define free markets. To me, a market isn’t free if the people involved in and impacted by the market aren’t equally free; this means feedom in terms of real impact on real people instead of just theoretical ideals of ‘freedom’; if some people are more ‘free’ than others in their influence over the future of the community, then it ‘freedom’ becomes a facade of power. Community is about everyone being involved, not just wealthy capitalists or well-connected politicians. It relates to a confusion many people have about socialism. Socialists are against laissez-faire capitalism but, despite what many think, not necessarily against free markets. Many socialists, in fact, are for free markets as an antidote to laissez-faire capitalism. For this reason, socialism has its deepest roots in the Midwest, a region that has always valued both community cooperation and a hardworking entrepreneurial spirit, both being seen as in alignment rather than in conflict. It was the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists who cleaned up the corruption of crony capitalism and built a thriving economy and community by working with small, local businesses.

In the Midwest, there is a history of small, local business owners who care about community. This culture of community still influences Midwestern business owners to this day, but it is a value system under threat. Capitalism has led to big businesses taking over family farms and thus destroying the once thriving communities that were built around those family farms. Having grown up and lived in this particular Midwestern town for most of my life, I have a good sense of and appreciation for the Midwestern business sensibility. When I was a kid, there were still many corner grocery stores, but they went out of business for various reasons such as licensing fees being put in place that favored big businesses. For most of the time I’ve worked for the city, I’ve rented from the Alberhasky family who have run a number of businesses for generations in this town. Doug Alberhasky operates the rental part of the family business is a perfect example of the Midwestern businessman. I’ve interacted with him a lot over the years. You can tell that he cares about the buildings he owns, many of them historic, and that he cares about this community he lives in and is a part of. Being responsible to his business isn’t separate from being responsible to his community.

Iowa City is lucky, unlike many other towns in Iowa (and the rest of the rural Midwest) that are facing far more severe problems. It’s people like the Alberhaskys who help maintain what is still good about this town, even during these economic hard times. Just because there are economic challenges, it doesn’t follow that we should stop prioritizing community. If anything, we should prioritize community and all aspects of public good even more during economic hard times. That is what made the Midwest so successful in the first place, what made it into what we now know of as the ‘Heartland’. As explained in The Middle West – Its Meaning in American Culture by James R. Shortridge (p. 19), the Midwestern conflict with laissez-faire capitalism goes back to the first generations who settled here:

“The economic depression helped to foster a sense of regional identity and independence for the Middle West, in part by bringing people together and forcing cooperation to temper frontier individualism,. The experience also broke many of the financial ties that bound the region to the East. Much Eastern capital had been invested in Kansas and Nebraska prior to 1887. Some of it had come as loans from family, some as support from the Free State movements prior to the Civil War, but most had been pure business investments. The money encouraged large-scale speculation in land, town sites, railroads, and nearly every other aspect of life that accompanied the settlement of the praire in the two postwar decades. Some fortunes were made from this speculation, but when hard times in the early 1890s produced defaults on loans, the two regions blamed each other for the troubles. Prairie farmers were irresponsible spendthrifts in Eastern eyes; Easterners were selfish, unfeeling exploiters from the Western perspetive. The financial troubles quickly became a regional political issue, spawning debates over free silver, protective tariffs, and populist reforms in general. They even created the first hero for the Middle West, Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan.

“The financial crisis affected familial as well as financial ties, dividing peoples who had already begun to drift apart. Kansans and Nebraskans who had been Eastern born and thus were “full of Eastern thought, energy, method, and sympathies” were replaced by a generation who had known only the prairies. “To such people the West was home,” wrote a Kansan; “Western ways and Western ideas are inbred.””

In the past, economic hardship strengthened local communities. But now economic hardships are so much larger than in the past. And sadly it seems more likely that community will be weakened in the process.

* * *

This hard-earned community spirit is easily lost if we aren’t careful. This brings me back to the original topic that I began with. The city government, for good or ill, is often the last defense of local community. Citizens can’t protect their commuity if their government doesn’t represent them.

The challenge of modern government is that so many decisions are complex. I can understand why the management of city departments would rather not involve the public in their decisoin-making. Democracy is messy, difficult, and time-consuming. But that is also the strength and advantage of democracy. It disallows decisions to be made too quickly that might end up having very bad results. Careful decision-making is particularly important when considering issues that will have long-term impact on the community.

Working in government, it could be easy to lose sight of the community aspect of one’s job even if one grew up in the community. It could begin to feel as if it were a job like any other job and one might forget that it in reality isn’t a job like any other job. Running a government isn’t just about cutting costs and increasing efficiency. If government isn’t about the community, then it is worse than useless. This should never be forgotten.

In recent decades, however, fiscal conservatism has become dominant in politics. A major element of fiscal conservatism is either privatizing government services or else outsourcing them. That such fiscally conservative strategies have even been introduced into a liberal college town like Iowa City shows how much power social conservatives have over our society. Even conservatives in Iowa tend not to be radical right-wing fiscal conservatives. The Republican-voting Western Iowa gets more federal welfare through farm subsidies than does Democratic-voting Eastern Iowa. Iowans, whether on the left or right, tend to be very moderate.

I see this connected with community for moderation is necessary in maintaining communities where people sometimes disagree. Cooperation isn’t possible without a willingess to compromise when it benefits the public good.

I feel like those making the decisions to outsource maybe don’t fully appreciate what they are doing. Too many decisions are made without enough foresight. I don’t know if that is the case in this situation, but I would advise that we follow the precautionary principle in considering massive changes. The city hasn’t even offered any evidence that outsourcing would either save money or create better results for the public. That is their argument, but as far as I know they’ve offered no data to back it up. Yes, outsourcing is an easy answer for providing a quick fix of cost-saving. But is it the best solution for all involved?

All I want is public discussion, just the good ol’ fashioned grassroots and community-oriented democracy that the Midwest is known for. If the community decides it is in favor of outsourcing, then I’ll support it as part of this community.

Traditional Conservative vs Right-wing: an example

This is a distinction that has fascinated me lately. I first thought about it when I read Henry Fairlie’s description of a traditional conservative in Britain. I realized that his view of a traditional conservative is what many right-wingers would call a ‘liberal’ or even a ‘socialist’.

Here is the example I just noticed (from the comment section of the article, The Future of America’s Working Class by Joel Kotkin):

pablo on Wed, 04/20/2011 – It might be cliche to sound the call of the “rich get richer while the poor get poorer,” or it might be anti-conservative to suggest that there’s a policy agenda that should speak to mobility. But, having spent time in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Mexico, I can attest to the value of social mobility. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the notion of “freedom” to which we vigilantly cling as conservatives is best reflected by social mobility, or “opportunity.” The freedom to take risks and strive for a greater future, the freedom to take risks, fall flat on one’s face, and be able to pick themselves up again. Each of these freedoms is dependent on access to capital, healthcare, and education, and a social net to some degree – making the each of these – capital, health, education, and welfare – fundamentally conservative values, in as much as they support the most conservative value of all – freedom of social mobility.

A traditional conservative will support any social institution (public or private) that promotes and maintains social order and public good. A traditional conservative will emphasize the social/societal (both social responsibility and social benefit) over the isolated individual.

A right-winger, on the other hand, will do the opposite. However, in America, it’s confusing. During good times, many social conservatives will be drawn to right-wing rhetoric in blaming the poor and disenfranchised. But during bad times, many social conservatives begin to join the ranks of the poor and disenfranchised, and all of a sudden they remember the value of traditional conservatism. So, right-wing is the attitude a social conservative has toward other people’s problems and social conservative is the attitude a social conservative has toward their own problems.

The distinction here is the ideology of fiscal conservatism, ideology that too often contradicts the reality of implemented policies. Fiscal conservatives make big promises about a meritocratic society, but they refuse to take responsibility when their promises turn out to be pipe dreams. Of course, those making the promises are rarely the same people who suffer the consequences for their failure.

As another commenter noted:

theodion on Sun, 03/20/2011 – The most essential guarantees employed to justify capitalism are that your young children will have a much better life than you do, and in President Kennedy’s well known words “a rising tide lifts all boats” that means all of us benefits from the accumulation of capital funds. These guarantees ring hollow in a period of time in which the relative situation of the working people of the US is declining and its ruling class is in a position to appropriate a growing share of the nationwide revenue. My conclusion to what has occurred is that the connection among productivity and wages has been damaged.

For decades, promises were made. And it took decades to discover how false those promises were.

Here are some other comments that further the discussion:

 cosmopolitanprovincial on Thu, 06/03/2010 – However, your focus should have been on the government-directed economic policies of the past 30 years rather than wholly blaming the welfare state. When maufacturing started to disappear from this country the govt. line was: “let the factory fail, after all it’s a free market.” Contrast this with the recent multi-billion pound bailout of the banking and financial service sector, which ordinary working people are now going to have to pay back in taxes for the next couple of decades. When a recession affected the bankers and stockbrokers, suddenly the “free market” disappeared and state intervention was the order of the day. This speaks volumes about where govt. priorities lay.

This is a classic case of being anti-welfare only when it affects the poor. Yet when the rich or corporations need welfare, then it is happily dished out to the tune of billions.
 – – – 
John Mountfort on Thu, 06/03/2010 – Absolutely correct. This nonsense of blaming The Welfare State for the problem of the growing underclass is based on a ridiculous assumption that human beings are so plastic in their capacities that they can be expected to respond to every change, however traumatic or rapid… and if they don’t, it’s because of some imaginary failing, like a Welfare State that just sucked the virtue out of them by making life too easy. But out virtues are themselves a product of the most stubborn aspect of human nature: our desire to have things remain the same. One would think conservatives would understand that… but I guess that’s another reason why we have hypocrisy.

cosmopolitanprovincial on Thu, 06/03/2010 – Like someone else pointed out, nearly every northern European country has a much more generous welfare system than Britain but they don’t have the same social problems.

Another point is that Britain is the country which has followed the “American model” more than any other nation in Europe. Sometimes we “go further” than the US: for example, nearly all state schools here are soon going to be under the governance of private organisations, many of them profit-making corporations (some of them from America). Our postal service is also going to be privatised. Other European countries who have not followed this model so slavishly have not experienced the same crime levels or social problems that we in the UK have. Please bear in mind I am not blaming America for this, it is the decisions of UK politicians who are responsible. But the point is, whatever the problems are, it isn’t because there isn’t enough ‘capitalism’ in the UK. We are a very similar economy to the US, often with identical brands and stores available (McD/Subway/KFC etc. in every town in the land).

[ . . . ] Like John, I agree that it is disingenuous to blame the underclass for this crisis: it is not they who decided that their source of jobs was systematically wiped out or that houses would become unaffordable or that the only economy left was based around shopping and drinking. It is a complex issue, based around globalisation (where factory jobs are basically in China or India rather than Britain), and the main focus of the political elites being on the middle-classes.

Re: Is today’s “American Political Ideology” about USA Inc. or how it effects the REST OF US?

This post is my responding comment to a post someone else wrote (Is today’s “American Political Ideology” about USA Inc. or how it effects the REST OF US?) in which the author referenced a previous post of mine (Conservative Ideology & Economics).

– – –

I noticed that you linked my blog post about conservative ideology and economics. I like all the other articles you linked. You’ve brought a lot together in this post. Some of your related articles remind me of various issues I’ve been thinking about.

First, Ron Paul said something the other day which was important. Despite disagreeing with domestic social spending (i.e., ‘entitlement’ spending), Ron Paul said it was a bad idea to start cutting with programs that are popular and that are designed to help people (their effectiveness and value being a separate issue). He sees there are bigger issues to worry about and that we should begin with military spending.

Every so often, Ron Paul says something that massively impresses me. This is such a moment. It’s a fact that a majority of Americans support domestic social spending and don’t want it cut. Ron Paul is demonstrating that he isn’t out of touch with the average American, that he puts people above merely seeking his own preferred ideology. He sees that military spending is the more central and much larger problem, a problem which most Americans agree about. Ron Paul is seeking to focus on an area of bipartisan agreement. That is an attitude I respect.

This is how I see it. Let’s do massive cuts on military. Let’s end our military empire. Let’s close down or otherwise lessen the funding for military bases in countries all around the world. Let’s end pointless wars that destroy lives and bring our troops home. Let’s end the profiteering of the military-industrial complex. After we do all that, then we can discuss issues of whether to cut domestic social spending or not, whether to give the rich tax cuts or tax hikes.

The second point was about Krugman’s article (Everyone Has An Ideology). He wrote:

“I always find it funny that rightwingers think CNN is liberal. This guy is espousing social conservatism. I have no problem with that. His opinion seems reasonable, even if I don’t entirely agree. But please please don’t tell me this is liberal media.”

I understand the point he is making, but I think he is missing a distinction. In my post, I reference psychological research showing dogmatism is one trait which predicts conservatism. There is a major difference between dogmatic ideology and non-dogmatic ideology. The latter tends to be more open-ended and broadly inclusive, more open-minded and willing to compromise, more intellectually humble and open to change with new data. I’m not saying there is no value to dogmatic ideology. Conservatives would describe it as sticking to their principles and sometimes that is a good thing, but sometimes not.

Some commenters at the Krugman link brought up similar thoughts:

http://community.nytimes.com/comments/krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/everyone-has-an-ideology/?permid=5#comment5

“I do think, however, there is a difference between having core values and being rooted in pragmatic approaches to realizing those values in the world of politics and believing in a “one-size-fits-all” doctrine that reduces complex problems to a single solution”

http://community.nytimes.com/comments/krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/everyone-has-an-ideology/?permid=9#comment9

“Well, yes, but there is a way to tell the difference between the two. The ideologue will go on and on about there received truth without any reference to facts even when those facts clearly contradict what they’re saying.”

One other commenter brought up something which is relevant to what bothers me about ideology, especially in politics:

http://community.nytimes.com/comments/krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/everyone-has-an-ideology/?permid=19#comment19

“In economics, what is referred to by the media as “ideology” is often just self- or class interest. In politics, reference to ideology is often an attempt to identify opponents with an enemy country or bloc – “socialism” still means identification with the Soviet Union/Russia or China to many people.

“Everyone may have an “ideology” at any given moment, but for many politicians the professed ideology can be changed according to partisan needs. Republicans pretend to be concerned now with the deficit, but this will change if a Republican is elected President. The current political debate is not ideological, it is a class conflict. One reason the plutocrats are winning is that those in the opposing class(es) think that they stand to benefit from the “ideology” supposedly adhered to by those who actually dominate government policy.

“The use of the term ideology should be restricted to principles that are consistently applied and not just based on material or political advantage. The media are not qualified to evaluate the validity or sincerity of “ideological” claims, but they can and should evaluate who stands to benefit from particular policies or actions.”

I’m less bothered by ideology, even dogmatic, as principles someone genuinely believes in (depending, of course, on the specific principles). The main problem is that principled/dogmatic ideology is easily used as rhetoric by politicians, pundits, and preachers who seek to manipulate people in order to achieve their ulterior motive. As a liberal, I prefer ideology loosely held because it counters and lessens this danger of rhetoric.

Another aspect of this problem is that rhetoric tends to win over facts which means principled/dogmatic ideology tends to win over ideology loosely held. Liberals, on the political battlefield, are at a disadvantage. This is how the far right has dominated the political narrative for decades. This is why fiscal conservatism has been the dominant ideology, even among Democratic politicians: neoliberalism, supply side economics, tax loopholes & tax havens for corporations, tax breaks & cuts especially for the rich, Two Santa Claus Theory, Starve the Beast, ‘free’ trade agreements, NAFTA, repeal of Glass-Steagall, deregulation, putting business friendly people at the head of regulatory agencies, cuts on domestic spending such as public services & infrastructure, attacks on entitlement spending & public education, union-busting justified by cost savings, and on and on and on.

Too often, fiscal conservatism is just a superficial facade for social conservatism. I wish politicians would just be upfront and honest, but I realize that is probably asking too much. Politics would be more interesting, maybe even inspiring, if we had real public debate about real issues… instead of endless ideology and manipulative rhetoric, cynical political spin and empty campaign promises… while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, while the debt grows and the problems are compounded.

Until recently, there hasn’t been as much public debate about many of these issues. Even now, Obama seems to be, according to his actions and not his rhetoric, more in agreement with conservatives than with liberals. This is an odd situation considering that Obama won the popular vote because he preached a progressive liberalism most Americans support. Polls show most Americans are more progressively liberal than apparently even most Democratic politicians. How can fair debate of real issues happen under these conditions? Why does the mainstream media often pay more attention to a liberal issue when a right-libertarian brings it up?

Conservative Ideology & Economics

This is an interesting video, but not because I agree with this person’s views, especially not on economics (that is, to the extent I understand economics).

I have a different worldview. I’ve always been a liberal in a general sense. I’ve found insights from many social, religious and political systems of thought (anarchism, socialism and libertarianism; psychology, sociology and anthropology; Christianity, gnosticism and philosophy; Et Cetera), but I’ve never been drawn to identify with any single ideology… which to me seems like liberalism at its best (or, if you’re a conservative who hates relativism, liberalism at its worst).

I’ve never understood the ideological mindset, especially when dogmatic. I respect anyone who with self-awareness and intelligence can change their mind. As such, I have basic respect for how the guy in the video has been willing to change his opinions as discovered new info and new perspectives. Nonetheless, I don’t resonate with the life story he shares. I’ve come across a few people like him who started life off with an ideological version of Christianity and spent many years jumping from ideology to ideology hoping to finally find the one true ideology. It’s odd to me. Such a person sees the problems in the ideology they previously held, but they often don’t see the problem in the ideological mindset itself. This guy, however, does seem to have come to a point in his life where he is beginning to step back from the ideological mindset.

I’ve struggled with trying to understand the attraction to ideology. I’ve written about how ideology is more attractive to those with right-leaning worldviews and mentalities (Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism and The War on Democracy: a personal response). It apparently is rooted in the correlation between conservatism and thick boundary types, along with other psychological traits. An ideology is a thick boundary and becomes ever thicker the more dogmatic it is held.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/15893285/Conservatism-and-cognitive-ability

Jost et al.’s (2003) meta-analysis confirms that several psychological variables predict political conservatism. The list includes death anxiety; system instability; dogmatism; intolerance of ambiguity, low openness to experience, and uncertainty; need for order, closure, and negative integrative complexity; and fear of threat and loss of self-esteem.

As a liberal, I find something inherently repulsive about the ideological mindset. I’m sure this is the reason why liberal atheists and conservative theists are always at each other’s throats. There is just some irreconceivable difference between these worldviews, these attitudinal predispositions.

Looking beyond my own biases, I wonder about the positive results of the ideological mindset. I can see how such a mindset would be beneficial in a traditional society, but there does seem to be benefits in general. From the same above link:

Recent evidence indicates that some existing stereotypes are not supported by the available data. For example,Brooks (2006, 2008) reports that conservative sengage more than liberals in charitable activities and people on the political right are nearly twice as happy as those on the left. The work of Napier and Jost (2008) shows that con-servatives tend to be happier than liberals because of theirtendency tojustify the current state of affairs and because theyare less bothered by inequalities in the society.

It’s kind of humorous. Conservatives are less bothered by inequalities and yet more likely to be involved in charitable activities.

I think some factors are being conflated here. In the US, conservatism correlates with religiosity. Being a part of a well established social institution such as a church makes one more likely to be involved in charitable activities. If this factor were controlled for, the difference might disappear. To clarify this, a study would have to compare church-going conservatives with church-going liberals or compare non-religous conservatives with non-religious liberals.

However, it’s possible that dogmatic people are more attracted to religion. A study would be necessary to compare conservatives and liberals in different countries. In a non-religious country, are non-religious conservatives more likely to be involved in charitable activities?

My other complaint about this kind of data is that liberals give more money and time by way of government and political activism. Unlike conservatives, liberals are bothered by inequalities. Liberals spend more time involved in political activism that the liberals themselves would perceive as charitable. Also, liberals are more likely to work as a public servant for less money than they would in the private sector because they like the idea of personally sacrificing in order to work for the common good. Furthermore, liberal states give more money in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits, whereas the opposite is true for conservative states.

For some reason, social scientists (and pollsters) often seem to use a conservative definition of charity when measuring charitable activities. Still, that doesn’t undermine the charity conservatives do, even if they only do it because their minister told them to or because they’re afraid of going to hell.

– – –

There is one criticism of liberalism in this video which I don’t know if it is generally true but I know is true in my own case. I have an analytical mind & so I’m sure I could learn about the complexities of economics, but I’ve never had much interest in it. As for systems of ideas, philosophy, theology & politics seem more relevant to my own life than economic theories. As for systems of facts, sociology, psychology & anthropology often seem more based in concrete facts than economic theories.

I’m not sure if my liberal mindset has anything to do with my bias against or at least disinterest in economics. I’ve never understood the type of conservative, right-libertarian or anarcho-capitalist who sees all the world through economics. I don’t dismiss economics. It just seems like one small piece in a big puzzle. I wish I knew more about economics in the way I wish I knew more about anything and everything. But I don’t want to see the world through any single lense.

Still, it is a curious observation that liberals might have less interest or understanding of economics. Or. to be more specific, that a conservative would perceive liberals this way. I can’t see any fundamental reason that would make a liberal less capable of understanding economics.

It could be just that the two groups tend to understand economics differently. I think this relates to the ideological differences found in higher education.

http://www.psych.umn.edu/sentience/files/Gage_2010.pdf

Unlike the relationship between area of study and political stance with respect to social issues, a significant effect of area of study code group on self-rating of political stance regarding economic issues was found. Based on the post-hoc comparison, business and economics students were found to be significantly less economically liberal than the students in the biological/related lab sciences, social sciences and fine arts students.

Interesting. Business and economic students tend to be more fiscally conservative. I’d guess that business and economic professors, teacher assistants, and textbook writers also are more fiscally conservative.

Why is this the case?

A possible explanation for this could be that, because business students often encounter more economic problems in their curriculum than those studying other concentrations, their increased knowledge of the effects of economic issues could make them act more conservatively when considering these issues. Another explanation could be explained by the self selection theory; when students enter the university they have their political views and select their major by finding the one whose views most closely matches their own.

Does this mean that economically well informed people are more fiscally conservative for the very reason of their being economically well informed? Or is it just that business and economic departments are dominated by fiscal conservatives? Considering that fiscal conservatives have dominated American society since Reagan, it would seem that the latter possibility is more likely.

This could be tested by finding a school that has fiscally liberal business and economic departments. Assuming such things exist in this post-Reagan era: Would a fiscally liberal curriculum attract fiscal liberals? Or is business and economics inherently attractive to fiscal conservatives no matter what the bias? I could make an argument for the latter.

Conservatism as a psychological trait predisposes one to being more more focused in a thick boundary sense and predisposes one to be attracted to ideology (i.e., systematized ideas and beliefs). Economics is a very theoretical field, more coldly pragmatic. Unlike psychology or physics, economics seems to be less grounded in researched facts because it’s very difficult to study large systems involving so many factors (individual humans, cultures, politics, environment, international influences, etc). An economic theory is more pure, more absolute than a psychological theory. Many conservatives, especially fiscal conservatives, are suspicious of scientific research and most suspicious of social science research. Conservatives are attracted to economic theory for the very reason that it seems above all the messy subjective factors, whereas liberals love all the messy subjective factors.

Contemporary economics, as it is taught and practiced, fits the conservative worldview. But that isn’t to say that is the only or best way economics could be taught and practiced.

Additionally, I see one major problem that no one ever deals with. What gets called fiscal conservatism doesn’t seem very conservative. The meaning of conservative is to conserve, to maintain social order, to uphold institutions of authority, to resist radical change. Accordingly, what Americans call fiscal conservatism seems radically liberal in essence.

Fiscal conservatism in the form of laissez-faire economics is extremely unstable with booms and busts and with a wide variety of deregulation fiascoes.

Fiscal conservatism in the form of supply side economics (trickle down, Reaganomics) has led to increasing poverty and wealth disparity which also creates an unstable society with a lot of social problems.

Fiscal conservatism as a minarchism that sees military as the only role for government has undermined the government’s ability to regulate in order to maintain economic order and has created massive debt with military spending.

If fiscal conservatives are more well informed about economics, why has fiscal conservatism failed so massively at the very time when it’s held the most influence over the entire economic system of the US and of the world? And why do fiscally liberal countries like Germany have such strong economies?

If fiscal conservatives understand economics better, why are most liberal states economically better off than most conservative states? And why do liberals put more priority on balancing the budget deficit than any other demographic, are more willing to raise taxes and cut major expenditures to balance the budget?

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/national-debt-starve-the-beast-wealth-disparity/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/liberals-are-the-new-fiscal-conservatives/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/poor-rich-better-off-with-democrats/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/demographics-red-states-blue-states/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/10-states-with-ridiculously-low-unemployment-and-why/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/capitalist-us-vs-socialist-germany/

To continue with more from the same link:

One interesting finding of this study was that, for each code group, the mean rating for political stance with respect to economic issues for each group was less liberal than their mean rating of political stance with respect to social issues, with the exception of the fine arts group, whose mean ratings did not differ. This means that, with the exception of the fine arts group, all code groups on average reported that they were less liberal economically than socially. This result is consistent with the findings of Hodgkinson and Innes (2001) in which all participants gave responses that were less pro-environmental when the condition involved an economic/environmental tradeoff. This implies that students in most areas of study become less liberal when an economic policy is in question. A possible explanation for this could be that people feel more directly affected by economic issues than they do by social issues, leading them to be more conservative in their perception because it is more likely to affect them. For example, having a neighbor who loses their job does not directly affect you, because your neighbor not having a job does not change your own circumstance. Yet, if a neighbor’s house is foreclosed on, this directly affects the person because it in turn decreases the value of their house and a person will more likely take greater caution in dealing with this issue than the previous one.

This once again shows the confusion in defining fiscal conservatism (and conservatism in general). What is conservative about helping oneself at the cost of others? What is conservative about destroying (i.e., not conserving) the environment? What is conservative about forcing future generations to deal with problems that we are creating now? What is conservative about putting greed and profit, ambition and hyper-individualism above all other values and issues?

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/conservative-critics-of-conservatism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/moderate-republicans-an-endangered-species/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/does-poverty-rise-as-biodiversity-falls-pavan-sukhdev/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/true-costs-are-punitive/

Part of the problem is there are very few people putting economic issues in fiscally liberal terms. And Americans are notoriously uninformed and misinformed about social issues such as related to economic inequality and about scientific issues such as environmental science. Contemporary economics (along with contemporary politics, media, culture, etc) is dominated by a fiscally conservative worldview which has become so ingrained in our society that it seems like commonsense, that it seems like pragmatic ‘reality’.

It’s not surprising that, when presented with an issue in a fiscally conservative framework, many people give fiscally conservative responses. But that probably doesn’t say anything about the merits of fiscal conservatism. Nor does that probably say anything about the economic learnedness of those espousing fiscal conservatism.

To counter the conservative ideology, I’ll end this post with a video series that presents the argument for the fiscally liberal worldview.

Tax Cuts: Reagan vs Bush

I’ve been thinking about Republican presidents recently. I had a particular thought comparing Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Reagan is remembered as great by conservatives and remembered as less than perfect by liberals. Either way, the best liberal argument is simply that Reagan would be considered a RINO by today’s Repbulicans. Bush jr is the closest these far right purists have come to their ideal of a ‘real’ Republican. That is a sad state of affairs.

I only want to point out one detail: tax cuts. Both Reagan and Bush campaigned on fiscal responsibility and both implemented tax cuts once in office. The comparison, on this point, ends there. Both Reagan and Bush faced economic problems after having implemented tax cuts, but they responded differently. As everyone knows, Bush kept the tax cuts to the bitter end. Neither 9/11 nor the wars following could stop Bush from implementing and maintaining his tax cuts. It is hardly fiscally responsible to massively increase spending while cutting taxes. I realize Starve the Beast seems like a wonderful policy to wealthy Republicans, but it can’t honestly be called fiscal responsibility.

So, what did Reagan do when it became obvious that tax cuts were failing and the economy was in trouble? He increased taxes. I was just reading that Reagan raised taxes 16 times. These tax increases also included the largest, at least at that time, tax increase during peacetime. Reagan was imperfect in his fiscal responsibility. He made the same mistake of increasing defense spending just because a big military gives rightwingers a hard-on.

Both Reagan and Bush followed the policy of Starve the Beast. The difference is that the latter did so with more enthusiasm. For Bush, reality was less important than ideology. That is what the American public gets when they elect a born-again fundamentalist. Reagan must be given blame for creating the deficit we now have, but his relative moderation kept him from having created an even greater deficit had he refused to increase taxes.

This is centrally important. Republican politicians haven’t shown they’ve learned any lesson from Bush’s failure and Reagan’s willingness to compromise. I was just listening to Boehner speak and he basically said that Republicans don’t plan to change which seemingly implies that there perfectly fine with the Republican policies during the Bush administration. Like Bush and unlike Reagan, they would want to keep all tax cuts (especially tax cuts for the rich) no matter what is going on with the economy and no matter how many wars are going on. They want to push Starve the Beast to its inevitable conclusion of economic crisis and broken budget. The Tea Party’s platform seems to fit perfectly into the vision of Starve the Beast. The Tea Party turned out just to be a maneuver for the GOP to reign back in former Republicans who strayed away because of Bush’s unpopularity.

Sadly, most of the American people and most of the American media won’t see past the GOP rhetoric. The resignation and cynicism right now is overwhelming. Even Obama doesn’t seem to genuinely believe in the hope he campaigned on.

Poor & Rich Better Off With Democrats

Why elections matter, in one graph
By Ezra Klein

I’ve been trying to figure out how to link to Timothy Noah’s series on inequality, which falls under the rubric of “things you should read that I have nothing to say about.” One thing I can say is that Noah, Catherine Mulbrandon and Slate have put an enormous amount of work into creating visuals to accompany the articles, and the results are really impressive. This graph, for instance, is the best visualization I’ve seen of Larry Bartels’s striking data showing how different income groups do under Republican and Democratic presidents:

bartelschart.gif

Much more here.

– – –

This reminded me of two other issues.

First, the deficit has increased with every recent Republican president and decreased with Clinton. Is that an accident that all economic brackets improve under Democrat leadership which is precisely when the deficit has also decreased? I really don’t know what the connection would be, but it definitely undermines the Republican argument that they are the party of ‘fiscal responsibility’ (see: ).

I heard a discussion on the radio the other day. It was about Clinton’s surplus. Gore and Bush had two polar campaign pledges. Gore said he’d put the surplus into a lockbox to save for a rainy day and to put towards social security. Gore’s plan makes sense considering that the surplus was created partly through Clinton’s emphasizing saving over spending. Bush, on the other hand, said he’d give the surplus away with tax cuts. After Bush was elected, 9/11 happened. He could’ve adapted to changing circumstances and saved the surplus, but he didn’t. He created the tax cuts and on top of that he started two wars. That is the complete opposite of ‘fiscal responsibility’. This makes me think of Reagan doing tax cuts while building the military which was the very thing that created our permanent deficit in the first place.

Of course, Bush’s wasting the surplus turned out to be a horrible idea. It would’ve been nice if the surplus had been saved for the rainy day that did come after Bush wasted all the surplus plus some. Yeah, government is the problem… when a Republican is president.

Now, the second piece of data I’m reminded of is related to economic inequality. Of course, as the deficit grew under all these Republicans, the wealth disparity grew which translates into the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer.  But that wasn’t directly what I was thinking about. It’s not just that the rich benefit because, according to the data from The Spirit Level (which I mention in my post ), the rich don’t benefit in all ways. Even the rich in a society with high wealth disparity are worse off in terms of social problems.

For example, take obesity which is a major health problem in the modern world and is related to many health problems from diabetes to heart disease. In high wealth disparity societies, there are higher rates of obesity and even the rich are more obese in these societies. One possible explanation is that societies with many social problems create more stress in the lives of people living there. The human body when growing in stressful conditions responds by increasing fat production as a survival measure.

My point is that Americans do better financially under Democratic administrations and I don’t think it’s an accident that Democrats value egalitarianism. I also don’t think it’s an accident that most strongly Republican states have high economic inequality and high rates of social problems… and. when Republicans are in power, Americans overall do worse financially. Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but this sure is a whole lot of correlation. If there is another explanation, I’d love to see what it might be.

Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)

There is class warfare. The rich have declared class warfare on the middle class. They want to take your money. They’ve already spent it on tax cuts for the rich. They took that 2.5 trillion dollar surplus and already gave it to the rich and the defense contractors and the bankers and the bailouts, etc, etc. They already gave it away, and now they don’t want to give it back… even though they owe it to you.

Now, you’re going to sit there and take that.  Don’t worry. Why don’t we elect a president that campaigned on change so that we don’t have to take it? Oh right. We already did that… and he’s got a deficit commission with 14 out of 18 people who are fiscal conservatives looking to cut social security. And you wonder why the American people get discouraged with politics.

If Obama were a progressive or a liberal, he wouldn’t even think about touching social security. If he doesn’t want to be criticized by the professional left (and by the average American for that matter), he shouldn’t have a commission with fiscal conservatives to discuss how to go about robbing average Americans of the benefits they’ve already paid for.

Doesn’t Obama understand that Social Security is one of the most popular progressive accomplishments ever to be passed? It is, certainly, a far greater accomplishment than Obama’s health insurance bill which excluded the majority support for such things as public option. Even Republicans used to understand what now even most Democrats in Washington have apparently forgotten. As Esenhower explained it:

…the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Is Obama really so clueless, so out of touch with the American people to believe that the criticisms of the ‘professional left’ aren’t shared by many Americans across the political spectrum. The American people are a lot more liberal and progressive than they are given credit for.

See my post which shows the overwhelming evidence:

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism

And here is the article where the poll was first written about:

Public Opposes Cutting Social Security To Trim Deficit: New Poll

…according to a new survey paid for by AARP and conducted by GfK Roper […] finds that 85 percent of adults oppose cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit; 72 percent “strongly oppose” doing so.

Numbers like that simply don’t appear in surveys of almost any other national issue that is subject to debate.

In fact, the AARP survey turns conventional wisdom about taxes on its head: half of all non-retired adults said that they would be willing to pay higher payroll taxes to ensure that Social Security will be there for them; 57 percent of adults under 50 would be willing to pay such a tax.

…The survey found that support for the program is intense even among those who said they aren’t confident that it will survive — a reasonable conclusion, given the hysteria and deception involved in the debate.

The anti-Social Security propaganda is having an effect, the poll found: Only 21 percent of respondents knew that if the trust fund is exhausted, the program will still be able to pay out benefits at a slightly reduced level.

See the poll data at the following link:

Social Security 75th Anniversary Survey Report: Public Opinion Trends

 – – – 

Since I posted the above, the debate about social security continues and the threats to it are increasing. That was just one poll from a year ago. I figured I should add some additional polling data and commentary. I came across a single page that appears to present all the polling data done in recent years:

PollingReport.com – Social Security 

Social Security has always been and continues to be widely and strongly supported, but Americans aren’t unreasonable. They are willing to compromise, although agreement about compromises are hard to find.

Hawkeye Poll: Majority of Americans supports Social Security reform

Nearly nine out of 10 respondents supported at least one reform, and two-thirds supported at least two reforms.

Of the five possible reforms proposed, two received majority support: half supported increasing the retirement age by up to three years, and 55 percent supported raising the income ceiling on Social Security taxes. Nearly half (48 percent) supported increasing the payroll tax by 2 percent.

Some proposed reforms would be much less popular, according to the poll. Seventy-eight percent opposed a decrease in benefits, and 60 percent opposed decreasing the cost-of-living adjustment.

The poll revealed important differences across generations, and across parties.

Nearly 60 percent of Democrats and half of Independents support increasing the payroll tax, but 68 percent of Republicans oppose such an increase. A majority of Democrats (66 percent) and Independents (60 percent) also support raising the income limit on Social Security taxes, but only 40 percent of Republicans would like to see that happen. In contrast, 64 percent of Republicans support increasing the retirement age while many Democrats (48 percent) and Independents (47 percent) oppose this option.

Younger Americans were more supportive of increasing payroll taxes. That option was supported by 53 percent of people ages 18 to 34 and 57 percent of those 35 to 54. Only 30 percent of respondents in the 55 to 69 age range and 33 percent of those older than 70 support such a move.

Older respondents were more supportive of raising the retirement age. Fifty-eight percent of people 70 or older and 50 percent of those ages 55 to 69 supported a three-year increase in the retirement age. But only 42 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds and 40 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds support that option.

Americans would rather put the burden on the rich (than on the poor and elderly) and cut almost anything else before they’d go along with letting politicians take an axe to Social Security.

2010 Midterm Election Voters Reject Cuts to Social Security

5: Which of the following statements do you agree with more: To reduce the federal budget deficit… Congress should let the tax cuts for the wealthy expire as planned? Congress should cut Social Security benefits? Or, do you agree with neither?

1030 Election-2008 Voters All Gender Party
Margin of Sampling Error: ± 3.1% Male Female Republican Democrat Independ
Let The Tax Cuts For The Wealthy Expire 40% 38% 42% 17% 61% 40%
Cut Social Security Benefits 4% 6% 3% 6% 2% 4%
Neither 56% 57% 56% 78% 37% 56%
Composition of Election-2008 Voters 100% 49% 51% 29% 32% 39%

6: Which of these statements best describes your views on Social Security: Congress should make up for possible budget gaps by cutting Social Security benefits? Congress should make up for possible budget gaps by changing the social security tax to also apply to income above $108,000, which currently is not taxed by Social Security? Or, Congress should not make any changes to Social Security?

1030 Election-2008 Voters All Gender Party
Margin of Sampling Error: ± 3.1% Male Female Republican Democrat Independ
Cutting Social Security Benefits 4% 4% 3% 5% 1% 5%
Changing The Social Security Tax 55% 58% 52% 44% 59% 59%
Not Make Any Changes 31% 28% 33% 40% 28% 26%
Not Sure 11% 10% 11% 12% 11% 9%
Composition of Election-2008 Voters 100% 49% 51% 29% 32% 39%

7: OK, which of THESE statements best describes your views on Social Security: Congress should make up for possible budget gaps by raising the Social Security retirement age? Congress should make up for possible budget gaps by changing the social security tax to also apply to income above $108,000, which currently is not taxed by Social Security? Or, Congress should not make any changes to Social Security?

1030 Election-2008 Voters All Gender Party
Margin of Sampling Error: ± 3.1% Male Female Republican Democrat Independ
Raising Retirement Age 13% 14% 11% 18% 7% 14%
Changing The Social Security Tax 54% 56% 53% 40% 60% 60%
Not Make Any Changes 25% 23% 27% 33% 23% 21%
Not Sure 8% 7% 9% 9% 11% 5%
Composition of Election-2008 Voters 100% 49% 51% 29% 32% 39%

The problems Republicans face are: (1) most Americans would rather not make changes unless there are no other options; (2) most Americans don’t agree on which changes would be best; and (3) most Americans (particularly Democrats & Independents but also including Republicans & Tea Partiers) are more in agreement with most liberal positions on this issue than they are with what has been presented by the GOP. There is much more public support in making no changes than there is public agreement on which changes should be made if it comes to that. Republican leaders, in terms of the American people, can’t win for losing. But somehow, despite everything being in their favor, Democrat leaders keep bending over backwards to agree with the unpopular position of Republicans.

Poll: Cut Social Security benefits or raise payroll cap? Not even close

Public Policy Polling for Daily Kos. 1/20-23. Registered voters. MoE 3.1% (No trend lines)

Currently, workers pay social security payroll taxes on up to $106,800 of their salary. To ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, would you rather have people pay social security taxes on salaries above $106,800, or would you rather see benefits cut and the retirement age increased to age 69?

           Raise
payroll cap   Cut benefits

All         77            10

Dem         84             4
GOP         69            17
Ind         77            11

Tea Party   67            20

18-29       80             0
30-45       69            17
46-65       82             8
65+         75            13

$0-30K      79             5
$30-50K     75            11
$50-75K     79             7
$75-100K    78            13
$100K+      72            18

The numbers above are stark. The largest proponents of cutting benefits are the Tea Party folks, and just 20 percent of them opt for the austerity solution. Even among those most affected — people making over $100,000 per year — only 18 percent opt for benefits cuts rather than raising the payroll tax cap. And for those least affected — the youngest cohort — the poll couldn’t pick up any support for cutting benefits.

Yet outside of the punditry, the DC political class, and a tiny fringe, no one wants benefits cuts.

Democrats could be scoring mad political points by going on the offensive, vowing to defend Social Security against all enemies, and fighting to equalize the program’s tax burden. (I wouldn’t just raise the cap on payroll taxes entirely, but I’d also use the increased revenues to lower payroll taxes on the low and middle classes and/or lower the retirement age.)

But no, raising the cap is off limits, and the entire political establishment is focused on delivering more pain to seniors.

There’s no better illustration of how DC is broken than this.

National Academy of Social Insurance

…a new brief and recent poll show that support for strengthening Social Security is strong across racial and cultural groups. The brief, Tough Times Require Strong Social Security Benefits (PDF), released today by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), presents detailed views on Social Security among African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and White Americans.

Current economic hardships brought on by instability in U.S. financial markets have reinforced Americans’ belief in the importance of Social Security. Anxious about their economic security and prospects for retirement, large majorities of Americans (88%) say that Social Security is more important than ever. Although Social Security enjoys support from a majority of Americans, African Americans and Hispanics (91%) are more likely than whites (77%) to say that we have an obligation to provide a secure retirement for all working Americans.

Plagued by higher unemployment rates, fewer assets, and worries about paying their monthly bills, African Americans and Hispanics are especially supportive of strengthening Social Security, according to the brief (PDF). For example, when given a choice between cutting taxes and government spending or strengthening Social Security in response to the economic crisis and large deficit, two in three Americans (66%) – including 73 percent of African Americans, 67 percent of Hispanics, and 66 percent of whites – support strengthening Social Security over cutting its benefits.

“Although African Americans and Hispanics, who are more heavily reliant on Social Security benefits, express stronger support than whites in most areas,” said Maya Rockeymoore, CEO of Global Policy Solutions and co-author of the brief (PDF), “these findings show that Americans of all colors firmly believe in Social Security’s value to society and want government leaders to take action to keep the program vibrant for future generations.”

Americans are also willing to pay to keep Social Security in existence for future generations. More than three in four Americans (76%) and an even greater proportion of African Americans (86%) and Hispanics (85%), don’t mind paying Social Security taxes because otherwise they would have to support their family members in their retirement. Similarly, 90% of African Americans, 90 percent of Hispanics, and 86 percent of whites agree that Social Security’s societal benefits are worth the cost.

Further polling data and commentary:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/postpoll_03142011.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/abc-newswashington-post-poll-cut/story?id=13153578

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/51476.html

http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=ignoring_public_opinion_on_social_security#

http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/A_Politics/___Politics_Today_Stories_Teases/11023%20Jan%20NBC-WSJ%20Filled%20in%20beta.pdf

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41876558/ns/politics/

http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2011/03/02/wsjnbc-poll-hands-off-medicare-social-security/

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704728004576176741120691736.html

http://www.peoplesworld.org/new-poll-americans-disagree-with-republicans-on-social-security-medicare/

http://socialsecurity-works.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/SSSCHighlightsofElectionPollonSocialSecurity.pdf

http://elections.firedoglake.com/2010/11/19/toxic-shock-poll-confirms-social-security-cuts-are-still-political-third-rail/

http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/news/publications/economic-crisis-fuels-support-social

http://www.ourfuture.org/report/2010083211/deficits-and-economic-recovery