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The End of Liberalism as We Knew It July 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics.
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Jim DeMint (R, SC) said last week that health care was Obama’s waterloo. Republicans, who at the moment seem to lack resources, ammunition, and leadership, probably should not draw comparisons with Napoleon, but DeMint’s remarks were in one respect prescient.

Health care is unlikely to be Obama’s waterloo, but it may mark liberalism’s waterloo, at least the liberalism to which we have been accustomed.

Anyone paying attention to political news last week was aware of two events: (1) Health care reform is stymied in the House and Senate over disagreements about how to pay for the program, and (2) the California legislature passed a budget bill that contains draconian cuts to education, social services, and local governments.

These two events are related in that they reveal the essential outlines of political strategies going forward.

In Washington, the Democratic health care reform proposals are held up by intransigent Republicans, who want no part of health care reform, and conservative Democrats who worry about costs, taxes and the withdrawal of affection from insurance industry lobbyists and their money.

This despite overwhelming public support for health care reform.

Although it seems irrational to stand in the way of a popular program that solves problems, Republicans know that if Obama succeeds with health care reform, they lose the argument that government is always the problem, never the solution. If they lose that argument, they lose the war.

Meanwhile, in California, because budget rules give a minority veto power, a few Republicans along with the Governator were able to convince the Democratic legislature to vote for severe cuts to education, home health services, and local governments—all popular recipients of state revenues. And without question this budget will worsen the recession in California.

It seems a bit of madness for a struggling minority party to cancel popular programs that will hurt voters, but, unfortunately, there is logic to their madness. The common denominator in both Washington and Sacramento is the willingness of Republicans to make it impossible for government to function. This is the aim of Republican strategy and it is rational because a dysfunctional government benefits Republicans.

The political calculation is this. Roughly 30% of the voting public self-identify as conservative and reliably vote Republican. Republicans can count on them, but their numbers are not sufficient to win many elections.

However, Republicans also know that there are legions of voters, Republican, Independent, and Democrat who, while acknowledging the importance of government, fret about whether government is competent to do anything worthwhile.  Mistrust of government, politicians, and bureaucracy, along with doubts about whether they can really solve problems, runs deep in this country. Years of Republican misrule have reinforced those doubts. If that is followed by drift and inertia while the Democrats are in charge, voters will be even more demoralized and cynical despite Obama’s hopeful rhetoric.

Cynicism and demoralization always play into conservative hands because they reinforce the belief that government is powerless to do good—the antithesis of modern liberalism.

Thus, the Republican strategy in the U.S. as well as California is to gum up the works, make the Democrats own the mess, and hope that enough people will be arbitrarily angry at the party in power to put Republicans back in control.

This strategy makes liberalism as we have known it irrelevant.

Contemporary  liberalism has always tended to attribute good intentions to its adversaries. It has been much enamored with the task of achieving “overlapping consensus” * by invoking Deweyan notions of “come let us reason together” in order to achieve common goals.

The liberal assumption was that our political community shares sufficient commitment to liberty, equality, and a well-ordered society so that we all have an interest in finding fair rules of governance despite our substantial differences.

These philosophical ideas about public reason suggest that bipartisanship and the compromise of more “extreme” positions by occupying the middle ground is the most fruitful approach to politics because it enables opposing sides to discover points of agreement on which to move forward that exist because we share the goal of good governance.

This is the intellectual tradition inherited by moderate Democrats who congenitally  prefer to govern from the center and make a fetish of bipartisanship.

Yet, in both Sacramento and Washington, Republicans are playing moderate Democrats like a Stradivarius. The fact that Democrats cannot count on any Republican votes means the Dems need strict party discipline to accomplish their goals. But on health care, the so called “centrist” Democrats are eviscerating the real reforms in the progressive proposals, and in California, there was little stomach among Democrats for standing up to the Republicans and refusing to go along with their death march.

In both cases, the moderate Democrats enabled the Republican dream of destroying government.

The problem is that centrist Democrats are still playing by the old rules, trying to govern effectively in a context in which the opposition is no longer a loyal opposition but a cancer trying to destroy the body politic from within.

Once upon a time, common goals and a shared interest in governing did exist. In post-WWII America, most Republicans and Democrats were seeking widely distributed prosperity and debates were about whether that prosperity could be achieved by relatively minor shifts in the balance between public and private goods. Compromise along that single continuum was easy to achieve.

Many Democratic politicians and especially many journalists who report on politics (David Broder of the Washington Post and George Skelton of the LA Times in particular) still think these are the rules of the political game. But the rules have changed. Liberals want to use government to solve problems; Republicans want to destroy government.

But you cannot reason with a cancer or compromise with a predator. Thus, centrist Democrats face an existential choice. They can negotiate with themselves, try on the predatory garb which Republicans now display, or join their more principled liberal Democrats in solving problems. What they can no longer do is help themselves to the tranquil center of American politics where liberalism used to reside.

In the 60’s, the left had a slogan—you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. That smacked of youthful arrogance then—but it ages well.


* Political philosopher John Rawls coined this phrase to describe the aim of public reason in a liberal democracy.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com


What Kind of Person Denies Essential Services to Millions To Save a Few Dollars? July 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy, politics.
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The California budget agreement has finally arrived and it is as bad as predicted—massive cuts to schools, higher education, social services, and local governments. The result will be millions of children without health care, an education system in accelerated collapse, disabled people kicked to the curb, and municipalities in bankruptcy. In short, every vulnerable person gets shafted.

All of this pain was made necessary because Governor Schwarzenegger and a small minority of Republican legislators have refused to modestly increase taxes to cover essential state services.  (Here is an account of proposed tax increases that would have avoided some of the cuts had they been enacted.)

The California economy will be hamstrung for years because of these shortsighted decisions. But economies can bounce back. The greater calamity may be moral decay and the collapse of the social trust on which society depends.

Progressives must develop a strategy to fix the state, but the first step is to get clear on what we are up against—and it is not a pretty sight. Moral catastrophes never are.

As has been well-documented, some of our budget woes stem from structural problems in the way government is managed. Proposition 13, the 2/3’s rule on budget matters, the power of lobbyists in Sacramento, a dysfunctional prison system, and government by ballot box have all contributed to the debacle.

But it is important to remember that these structural impediments to good government and the unconscionable cuts in the current budget represent decisions made by people—the politicians who promoted these policies and the voters who gave them their support. California’s budget debacle is not a force of nature or an accident. Some Californians, in and out of government, decided the health and welfare of millions of people could simply be ignored in order to avoid modest tax increases. That is a decision for which they must be held fully responsible. 

I have known many Republicans and conservatives over the years. And they don’t seem to be personally less compassionate or responsible than the rest of the population. In their personal lives, they seem to have the same moral emotions and moral focus the rest of us have.

But when it comes to public policy, all that compassion and responsibility dries up like a San Diego stream bed in August.

Hence the question the title poses. What kind of person denies essential services to millions to save a few dollars?

Of course the answer to that question is that they are in the grip of an ideology that makes them moral cripples.

It is worth unpacking this ideology.

Conservatives think that people are fully responsible for their lot in life. If you are successful it is because you deserve it and if you are not successful it is because you don’t. Thus, the vastly unequal distribution of goods in our society already reflects the morally optimal distribution. Any marginal increase in goods should go to the wealthy and marginal decreases in wealth are burdens that must be borne by the poor, the middle class, or the disabled. This is the only logic that could justify this budget.

These are strange beliefs to hold, especially with regard to children who presumably don’t deserve their lot in life. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that luck plays a large role in determining how well people do, and that it is impossible to make sound inferences about perfect strangers when explaining why someone is successful or unsuccessful. But if they are so unreasonable, why do these conservative ideas persist?

I suppose you could derive these “moral beliefs” from the basic principles of free-market fundamentalism. According to conservatives, an unregulated, minimally taxed  market tends toward equilibrium and will thus settle on a distribution of products and prices that is beneficial to everyone. By adding the above premises about what people deserve, conservatives enjoy a double dollop of self-esteem–the “screw the poor” policy is both “just” to individuals and best for society overall.

In addition, conservatives cling to the idea that raising taxes even a bit will plunge the economy back into recession. There is ample empirical evidence refuting this idea, and the theory of free-market fundamentalism has now been thoroughly discredited. Yet the ideas persist, immune to counter-example, within a sizable portion of the public.

But the important point here is that none of these judgments about economics or what people deserve explains why people would weigh such questionable premises more heavily than moral compunctions about the suffering of millions of disadvantaged people. In other words, even if recession economics requires low taxes, and poor and middle class people are less ambitious than the wealthy, it doesn’t follow that we should simply ignore the destructive social consequences of these budget cuts. What sort of value system allows you to discount human suffering in favor of some “theory” about economics or human nature?

In fact, most politicians and their supporters are not economists and are unlikely to hold firm beliefs about market equilibria or recession economics.

Thus, I suspect that underlying these beliefs about what people deserve is the (unconscious) belief that the unsuccessful are not only undeserving but evil—a kind of fifth column threatening the fabric of society with their indolence and incompetence. Social welfare only encourages their indolence, and public education is the Trojan horse that will give them access to positions in society. Thus, draconian budget cuts are good things—they cleanse the social body of vermin that threaten its health.

To believe such a thing is to be in the grip of a delusion so pervasive that it can be sustained only by unconscious motivations—deep resentments, pathological narcissism, an authoritarian need to control others through scapegoating, etc .

It is not nice to contemplate fellow Californians with such motives, but I am at a loss to find an alternative explanation for what the Governor and legislature have done.

Conservatism came to power in part based on promises to lower taxes while providing essential services through free market innovation. But its ability to capture the imagination of voters also depended on the perception that conservatism was a morally superior ideology. The values rhetoric for which conservatism is well-known provided moral cover for the questionable economic theories they advanced.

With this budget, the emptiness of that values rhetoric has once again been exposed just as their economic theories are in tatters. What is left is not merely naked self-interest but a self-interest bolstered by deep resentment, bigotry, and pathological indifference.

It is not obvious how that moral cancer can be put into remission though our future depends on it.

But they really are nice people. Really!

 Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

Terminating the Tax Phobia June 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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I don’t often praise the San Diego Union-Tribune. Its radical, right-wing editorial stance is partly responsible for the disastrous political climate that has generated California’s budget deficit.

But on Sunday, Dean Calbreath’s column was a breath of fresh air:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal before the Legislature is to rely on cuts alone to fix the budget: $5.5 billion from health and human services, $5.1 billion from education and $1.3 billion from the court and prison systems. The rest of the money would come from one-time sales of state assets; borrowing from cities and counties (an idea that infuriates local officials); furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs of state employees; fee increases and cuts in other services.

Schwarzenegger pledged last week to veto any budget that includes new taxes beyond what he has already proposed, which largely consist of increases to the state sales and income taxes.

“To do another tax increase is irresponsible,” Schwarzenegger said.

But Calbreath describes the minor tax increases that Democrats in the legislature have put on the table that will help avoid approximately 5 billion dollars of those cuts.


Tax Oil Extraction

[…]California is the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the country behind Louisiana, Texas and Alaska. But despite our reputation as a high-tax area, California has never imposed severance taxes for pulling gas or oil out of the ground.

That’s a stark contrast to the other oil-and gas-producing states, most of which have double-digit severance taxes […]

Repeal Corporate Tax Breaks

[…] During the budget negotiations in February, the Legislature inserted three corporate tax breaks that resulted in a total gap of $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

Data from the state Franchise Tax Board show that one of the proposals – to allow companies to choose between two ways of being taxed in the state – would largely benefit the 0.1 percent of companies in California that make more than $1 billion per year. Much of the benefit would go to just nine companies, saving them an average of $33 million a year. […]

Another proposal, which would allow corporations to transfer taxes among related companies, would benefit just 0.03 percent of corporations, with the top six companies saving an average of $23.5 million a year.


Increase the auto license fee.

Schwarzenegger’s first action as governor was to roll back California’s fee on automobile licenses, which put a $4 billion hole in the budget. As the budget problems mounted last year, Schwarzenegger was forced to increase the license fee. And now the Legislature is proposing to raise it an additional $15. […]

Cigarette taxes.

The committee is proposing to increase excise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products by $1.50 per pack, nearly tripling the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 87 cents to $2.37. This proposal would increase revenue by an estimated $1 billion next year.

Schwarzenegger claims it would be irresponsible to increase taxes, despite the fact that they will affect very few Californians. Somehow slashing public health and safety programs, plundering local government, gutting K-12 and higher education, and laying off thousands of state workers is responsible?

It is ironic that Schwarzenegger at the end of his political career is reprising the film role that launched his career as a celebrity—the predator in Terminator 1.