Conservative Goals

Heterodox conservative Josh Barro argued after the election that the increase in economic inequality in recent decades, along with the election results, show the need for conservatives to make peace with redistribution. 

“There’s…no reason to think that, whatever standard of living we start from, an economy where nearly all the improvements accrue to a small fraction of families is either politically sustainable or morally acceptable.”  For him, inequality can be a problem even if the poor do not suffer from dire material deprivation.  It might be acceptable if everyone’s incomes were rising, but those of the rich were rising fastest; but when most income levels stagnate and upper-levels rise, this is a problem for him.

Part of what makes conservatives who they are, though, is that they see fairness as based on procedures, not on outcomes.  Barro doesn’t engage this debate, merely asserting a position on one side of it.  Yet the question of where conservatives should make concessions depends partly on what they prioritize most highly.  Embracing top-down health care cost controls, working to make Obamacare “less costly and less economically distorting” while accepting its basic framework, and working to make redistributive policy more pro-growth by “minimizing poverty traps…and making sure the tax base is broad so progressivity can be achieved with relatively low tax rates” makes sense if growth, lower health care costs are higher priorities than those conservatives have been pursuing; but if not, maybe not.

If there is really political demand for greater redistribution, we may have a different matter.  Yet it isn’t obvious that the election results reveal this.  Unlike 2010, it was largely free of policy and ideological content, being fought instead over which candidate could best manage government to produce economic growth rather than over what direction we should take government.

More broadly, during the three-decade period of growing economic inequality that Barro cites, we have cut top marginal taxes, attached work requirements to welfare, and even (if it matters) elected plenty of Republicans.  In the 60s, amid an economic boom, we expanded redistribution.  The rise in income inequality culminating in the 1920s did not bring about the New Deal; Depression did.  The response to perceived Gilded Age inequities was anti-trust laws, not redistribution; procedural fairness, rather than outcome-based fairness, was the goal.

William Jennings Bryan and the free silver populists did advocate redistributive inflation, but this was to combat a deflationary depression.  According to an educational lesson plan by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve, “Farmers were having financial difficulty because the money they received for their crops was decreasing but their farm debts remained fixed, which means that because of deflation, running their farms became more expensive over time.”  So it’s a specific set of conditions that triggered demand for specific redistributive policies; it wasn’t just a matter of “you have more money than I do, I think I’ll take some.” 

Today, I think the equivalent is the trade issue.  People don’t want explicit “hand-outs”, but on the other hand they don’t want to see massive job losses and wage reductions through no fault of their own.  They hit on protectionism as a solution.  Pro-trade elites tend to counter with proposals like job retraining.  Probably as Barro suggests none of these things will make much of a difference, and pre-tax inequality is here to stay.  That doesn’t mean we can divert people from opposition to free trade by just taxing the rich and giving them handouts from the government.

Mitt Romney’s 47% comments offended people precisely because most people don’t want to be thought of as dependent on handouts.  Barro himself argued at the time that the comments would cost Romney the election.

Barro writes that conservatives “fought as hard as they could to stop [Obamacare], rejecting the whole idea of a more progressive fiscal policy.  (If you think conservatives’ objection is to spending rather than spending specifically on poor people, note how protective Republicans are of Medicare, a relatively non-progressive entitlement program.)

“And they lost, because the rise in pre-tax inequality (and the related rise in health care costs) is making the electorate’s demand for progressive fiscal policy stronger and stronger.”

But Republicans didn’t lose the public debate on health care; they lost the vote, because Democrats had the power, because they were strongly committed to passing a bill, because they had spent so much time on the issue that they thought the public would punish them for a lack of results as much as it would punish them for a bill it didn’t like.

Nor was increase in redistribution the main objection.  That would be a change in degree, but not kind, from the status quo ante, and compromise could probably be reached.  The goal behind Obamacare, from the point of view of the wonks who brought it about, was to bribe the public into accepting cost controls for health care.  They wouldn’t accept cost controls from greedy HMOs in the 90s, but perhaps they would accept restrictions imposed by wise, benevolent government.  This proved not to be very far from the case, to the point where pro-Obamacare propagandists were forced to deny the law represented anything like a “government takeover” of health care, or in any way threatened the existence of the private insurance industry.

Inside the Beltway, the debate was about whether Obamacare would successfully control costs, but outside it was about opposition to cost controls, at least as imposed from the top-down.  It’s true that the public might be equally hostile to conservative cost-control measures designed to encourage people to pay for care directly rather than through insurance.  But in that case the choice is between competing, popularly unappealing reform options.  It is not primarily a choice between more and less redistribution.

Given rising health costs and the aging population, the money just isn’t there for more redistribution.  If you make that problem, rather than inequality, your starting point for analysis, you will better describe the actual contemporary policy choices.

***

As for Barro’s remark that Republicans protect Medicare spending, proving they are okay with spending money as long as it’s not directed at the poor, that only means they’re trying to appeal to an electorate that loves Medicare spending, suggesting they’re not out of step after all.*  This highlights a bit of an equivocation by Barro: is the problem the state of the middle class, or the state of the poor?  He says incomes have increased for the very rich while stagnating for everybody else, so why does this call, in his mind, for an increase in welfare for the poor, as opposed to more middle class entitlements?

*Even there, the House GOP embrace of the Ryan budget weakens Barro’s claim considerably, supporting my above claim that the real debate is about how, not whether, to control costs. 

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“War on Science” II

I covered some of Krugman’s column about purportedly anti-science conservatives in my last post, but there’s more there worth delving into:

What accounts for this pattern of denial [of science/facts]? Earlier this year, the science writer Chris Mooney published “The Republican Brain,” which was not, as you might think, a partisan screed. It was, instead, a survey of the now-extensive research linking political views to personality types. As Mooney showed, modern American conservatism is highly correlated with authoritarian inclinations — and authoritarians are strongly inclined to reject any evidence contradicting their prior beliefs.

It isn’t a partisan screed, you see, it’s science, by a science writer.  It’s not about how Republicans are wrong, it’s about the science of why they’re wrong.  But it takes as its starting point that Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong.  Or as Mooney himself puts it, his book seeks to explain “Why are today’s liberals usually right, and today’s conservatives usually wrong?”

Mooney’s three page piece about his book lists a litany of things conservatives are purportedly wrong about, as examples of the sort of thing requiring explanation, but does not feel the need to prove that conservatives are wrong about these things.  Nor does he compare conservative and liberal wrongness, even in the cases of obvious parallels like 9/11 truthers versus birthers.

Though conservative wrongness and liberal rightness is the assumption rather than the conclusion, the Krugman/Mooney reader is supposed to think “science says conservatives are authoritarian, authoritarians disregard inconvenient information, therefore conservatives disregard evidence against their prior beliefs, therefore liberals’ brains work better, therefore they’re right.  Before we even look at the evidence, we know we liberals are right, because we liberals are more open-minded to evidence.  There’s even a book about it, by a science writer!”

Or as Mooney writes, “Now, conservatives won’t like hearing that they’re often wrong and dogmatic about it, so they may dogmatically resist this conclusion.   They may also try to turn the tables and pretend liberals are the closed-minded ones, ignoring volumes of science in the process. (I’m waiting, Ann Coulter.)”*  Wait- conservative wrongness is supposed to be the phenomenon you’re explaining!  It’s one thing to show how people can come to wrong conclusions, quite another to say that because of a flawed thought process, people’s conclusions must be false.  Or, in this case, because a flawed mental process is somewhat more correlated with your opponents than with your team, that your team must be right about all reality.

Brain science that could be used to steer us clear of errors in thinking is turned to measure competing factions, and reinforce one such faction’s dogmatism.  It may be that one party correlates more strongly than the other with certain flawed mental processes**, but the number of people who really think well is vanishingly small, and where you have a movement, Party or faction, you have bad thinking, however well its members think about other things.

***

The subtitle to The Republican Brain is “The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality.”  So we already know They Deny Science- and Reality, don’t need to prove it, only need to find out why, scientifically of course.  But look at what exactly we “aleady know”- liberals are right and conservatives are wrong about reality as a whole, not just about science.

Mooney makes the following claim in his piece summarizing his book: “no matter how much the fact-checkers strive to remain ‘bi-partisan,’ it is pretty hard to argue that, today, the distribution of falsehoods is politically equal or symmetrical….politicized wrongness today is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers.”  Again, this doesn’t limit us to science, and again, it just reduces to “liberals are right, conservatives are wrong,” or “I am a liberal.”

It’s fine for Mooney to be a liberal.  It’s fine for him to think there’s a standard external to liberalism according to which liberalism is superior to conservatism.  It’s not fine for him to equivocate about what this standard is.  His subtitle leaves the impression science is the standard.  It doesn’t restrict him to science, though, but to all reality, which is to say it doesn’t restrict him at all.  He wants us to associate liberalism with science and its epistemological glory, to get us to endorse an unlimited range of claims.

Thus, “[conservatives’] willingness to deny what’s true may seem especially outrageous when it infects scientific topics…But the same thing happens with economics, with American history, and with any other factual matter where there’s something ideological…at stake.”

So instead of science, perhaps facts are Moony’s/Krugman’s external standard for judging between liberalism and conservatism.  Of course, he doesn’t define “fact” to distinguish it from liberal judgment and opinion, and make it a truly external standard.

Direct sensory experiences, unmediated by any mental models, are truly independent of opinion about which models are superior.  One may believe that sensory experiences point to qualities of a “thing-in-itself;” one may believe there is no thing-in-itself, independent of perception, so that things exist only when someone sees them; one may believe that our minds themselves mediate external reality, imposing things like time, space and number that are alien to that reality itself.  Regardless, you can observe a bee stinging someone and say “hey, that bee just stung that person,” and someone else observing the same thing can say “yes, it did.”  I can also draw conclusions about things I have not observed, but others have (Columbus sailed in 1492 and reached the Caribbean Islands; there is a city called London in England, an island off the coast of Europe), and these require no real interpretation.***

Facts don’t resolve debates over reality, truth and ideology.  People rarely bother disputing facts, since they are obvious, and since it is very easy to interpret new facts to fit your beliefs.****

***

Back in the 90s, when I was growing up, people didn’t take politics very seriously.  Politics was for rubes.  Somewhere along the line, though, some people decided this attitude was dangerous.  Apathy and open-minded relativism, with serious people guiding cultural evolution while leaving politics to the rubes, left us with…George W. Bush!  Facts and science were things people already respected, so the obvious answer is to redefine liberal opinions as facts.

Liberals believed that Bush-era follies were the follies of government by the stupid, not of government itself, and as a result embraced a 50s-60s style optimism about government that one might have hoped had been left behind for good by the cynicism of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Political comedy reflects the change in attitudes- compare the onion’s political coverage today with its coverage in the 1990s.  Their 90s articles are irreverant and nihilistic; today’s are didactic and partisan.  In contrast to P.J. O’Rourke and Dave Barry, Jon Steward treats political comedy as representing a Higher Seriousness to which politics should aspire, an expression of outrage against a frivolous status quo.

Stewart and countless others like him disdained horse-race political analysis, believing the media should instead tell The Truth about the issues.  Yet with the 2012 election and the vindication of Nate Silver, they have themselves embraced horse-race analysis as the latest instance of Republican self-delusion and proof of liberal scientific superiority (Krugman’s column makes much of this.)

* Because his book is completely different from an Ann Coulter book advancing the opposite argument- it’s not a partisan screed, remember, it’s Science.

** But when challenged, Mooney says things like “However, let me say at the outset that Kahan is right about one thing: Liberals engage in motivated reasoning, too. Whether conservatives do so more, across the board—the so-called ‘asymmetry thesis’—is still up in the air. And even if it’s true, it may require nuancing or refinement.

“The Republican Brain didn’t clinch the case in favor of “asymmetry” as Kahan defines it–something I fully admitted in the book. Indeed, the study reported at the end of the book tried to test the asymmetry hypothesis, but failed to confirm it. So it is not as though Kahan is ‘against’ the asymmetry thesis and I am ‘for’ it–it is a lot more complicated than that.”

*** I basically just have to conclude that any effort to decieve on the point would have to be too massive for people who are supposed to be deceived not to notice.

**** In 2009, nobody argued that we had 1% unemployment, but lots of liberals argued that the crisis was traceable to deregulation; or, if they wanted to make a less verifiable or disconfirmable claim, that it was traceable to a “free-market absolutist mindset,” or, if they were exceptionally stupid, that it was traceable to the Bush tax cuts.  Lots of conservatives argued that the crisis was traceable to government intervention.  The fact of financial crisis could fit multiple interpretive frameworks quite easily.