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Tuesday, November 02, 2010  

Teach us to care, and not to care

After you've voted, made your calls, and done your doors today, all of you partisans out there should read Will Wilkinson on the limited impact of election outcomes. Lest this sound like preemptive sour grapes, I'd like to point out to friend and foe alike that the landmark achievement following two consecutive big Democratic wins was the passage of Mitt Romney's health care plan at the national level. And anyway, Wilkinson's argument isn't just a "what can you do?" appeal to resignation. It's an argument that I wish were made more often alongside the endless and inane patter about the Tea Party as a movement of 'small government,' and it's worth quoting at some length:

Democratic politics is to a great extent a war of coalitions over what the great political economist James M. Buchanan called "the fiscal commons". Think of government as a huge pool of money. Control of government means control over that pool of money. Parties gain control by putting together winning coalitions of interest groups. When a party has control, its coalition's interest groups get more from the pool and the losing coalition's interest groups get less. So, yeah, it matters who wins. When Democrats are in charge, that's great news for public-employees unions and General Electric's alternative energy division. When the Republicans are in charge, that's great news for rich people and Raytheon.

...The money in the pool has to come from somewhere, so the battle is waged just as much over who is forced to pay into the pool and under what circumstances. The middle class doesn't like to get welfare checks, so instead it gets tax credits and deductions for doing things middle-class people generally do anyway. It's six one way, half-a-dozen the other. Regulatory policy is even more indirect, but regulation often amounts to little more than welfare checks for some interest groups and taxes for others. Monetary policy has distributional consequences, too, by changing the real value of money. Other things equal, inflation erases both debt and savings; good for debtors, bad for creditors. I think you'll find that political parties tend to reliably support policies that have nice distributional consequences for the interest groups that support them. And I think you'll find politicians and court intellectuals brilliant at framing pay-offs to party stalwarts as policies absolutely necessary to the common weal.

But I think you'll also find that policy doesn't swing very wildly when government changes hands. Parties do what they can to reward supporters, but they can't do too much.

I think this is right as far as it goes. The big, number-one, can't fail reason that the Tea Party/GOP incoming class won't seriously tackle the deficit is that doing so would be costly to the biggest pillars of their electoral coalition--the old and the rich. In politics, demographics is destiny. Politicians elected with the support of old, rich, white people who don't jealously guard the interests of old, rich, white people relative to the young, poor, and non-white will find themselves out of a job.

But that's where Wilkinson's clear-eyed realism starts to fail him. There are distributional impacts to the policy choices made at the margins, and not just of the horizontal GE-vs.-Raytheon type. There are some fairly predictable consequences of a shift in power toward the GOP, as has been the case in every election since at least 1980.

1) Economic inequality will accelerate. The one die-in-the-ditch principle of the Republican Party since 1990 is that taxes must never be raised on the wealthy. If there's a runner up, it's that the financial sector should be able to do whatever it wants. So the rich will get richer at a much faster rate than anyone else.

2) Public services for the young and poor will suffer. The Republicans may have become the Party of Medicare, but they will never ever be the Party of Medicaid. While promising to insulate people 55 and older from huge cuts to Medicare and Social Security--in effect trying to force my generation to pay both for our parents' retirement and our own--they will cut Medicaid and nutrition support across the board and without notice. This means less access to doctors and more reliance on emergency rooms for the one-in-five American children who live in poverty. At both the state and federal levels, most of the line items that can actually be cut are things of this sort: nutrition programs, substance abuse counseling, and the like. Republicans always, always cut these things when they have any access to power.

3) In public infrastructure, cities lose out relative to exurbs and rural areas. Republicans lost the cities a generation ago and are dropping to parity at best in the older, inner-ring suburbs. Therefore cities get hosed at appropriation time whenever Republicans are in power. You are likelier to see a dozen bridges to nowhere for every one mass-transit upgrade in the average Republican Congress.

I don't want to claim too much here. Democratic majorities, too, are less than solicitous of the interests of the poor and near-poor, children, and urban residents. But at least these constituencies have a seat the table. They are part of the coalition--junior partners, maybe, the first to be thrown over when budgeting gets tough, but still at the table. For Republicans, these groups do not exist, fiscally speaking.

At the risk of sounding self-righteous, then, I'll just point out that what for Will Wilkinson is the marginal give-and-take of two robust electoral coalitions centered on the middle class is a rather more dire matter for a kid who gets his breakfast from school, a bus-dependent service worker, a 40-year-old with chronic health problems, or the parents of a teenager with severe disabilities. Since I'm well under 55 and way under $250,000 in annual taxable income, the Republicans have basically nothing to offer me. But I'm also close enough to the middle to be at least somewhat insulated from the micro effects of these policy trends. Our foster child isn't, however, nor are most of the kids I've worked with in Chicago churches. They really will get screwed, and I'm not prepared to take the long view about that just yet.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:44 AM
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