Banks and bunkum

An infrastructure bank is a proposal no reasonable person could oppose; therefore Republicans will oppose it. But don’t despair; for every stupid Republican argument against it one can construct an equally stupid Democratic argument for it.

Larry Seidman, Bob Hockett, and I are working on a project to estimate the amount by which well-chosen investments in infrastructure would reduce national debt levels, so we naturally applauded President Obama’s recent proposal to create a $50 billion infrastructure renewal bank. In a rational world, no one could possibly oppose this proposal, yet no one expects Republicans to show the least interest in it. In a recent email exchange, Seidman sent Hockett and me the following pitch-perfect prediction of what Republicans will have to say:

(1) Do you want a new BIG GOVERNMENT BANK, AN OBAMABANK, and its bureaucrats to take over your roads, bridges, and trains?
(2) Do you want BIG GOVERNMENT projects to get you snarled in traffic jams while BUREAUCRATS decide what lanes to shut down on the roads you drive?
(3) Do you want construction UNION BOSSES shutting down your roads so they can grab your hard-earned taxpayer dollars?)

Not to be outdone, Hocket proposed the following responses for Democrats:

(1) Would you rather have a public-private partnership bank investing in real infrastructure that brings real jobs, lower deficits, and a better quality of life to ALL AMERICANS, or more budget-busting TAX CUTS FOR BIG WALL STREET BANKS and their robber baron clients who are trying to CONVERT AMERICA INTO A CASINO?
(2) Do you want our roads and bridges and airline routes to deteriorate even further and MAKE TRAVEL EVER MORE SLOW, SNARLED, AND HELLISH, JUST SO THE MONEY that would have repaired them CAN MAKE RICH UNPRODUCTIVE WALL STREET CLIENTS RICHER?
(3) Do you want all the DECENTLY PAYING JOBS THAT SUPPORT A VIBRANT MIDDLE CLASS to continue to be SHIPPED OVER TO CHINA? No, we didn’t think so.

Let the debate begin!

19 thoughts on “Banks and bunkum”

  1. I'm with you here. But the Republican/Tea Party message sells better (even though it makes no sense at all). Democrats have to somehow get over the urge to explain themselves and make sense all the time in their public pitches for their view of governing. That's not the way the game is played today. Look at the differences in simple syntax between the two alternatives above? Which fit better on a sign? Which would the general public understand more easily? It does not matter that the Tea Party version makes no sense–it's a better soundbite, and thus will be repeated more and accepted more easily by busy people who prefer not to think that deeply (i.e., nearly everyone in America). Bill Clinton won, I think, because he mastered the simple soundbite and purposed it to progressive goals.

    "Infrastructure bank"? I agree–excellent idea, but what person on the street is going to know what that is? Set it up the way they do: "THE PRESIDENT wants to FIX OUR NATION'S ROADS. JOHN BOEHNER wants to give more tax breaks to OIL COMPANIES and RICH GUYS LIKE HIM." Or, to put it in the form above, "Do you want YOUR HIGHWAY MONEY to go into the POCKETS of WALL STREET BANKERS and OIL EXECUTIVES?" Do you want to SIT IN TRAFFIC while WALL STREET BANKERS laugh from their PRIVATE JETS above you?" "Do you want AMERICAN JOBS to be shipped to CHINA so WALL STREET BANKERS can get richer?" I am not in politics, but this stuff seems pretty elementary, and the Democrats are forever being outdone by it in their urge to be erudite. For this election: no qualifications of statements, no quarter to the validity of the views of the other side, no lengthy justifications of policy choices. Just existential us versus them. It works.

  2. I agree anon. The problem Democrats always have is that they're just not natural pitchmen. That's not how they think. The Republicans are masters of the "it slices, it dices" model. They're comfortable with making superficial points with partial truths. The choice is clear: you're with them and freedom, or your with the socialist bureaucrats. Americans understand that. There's no wonkish detail, just big ideas. I think anon is exactly right that Democrats need to reclaim the bold ideas, and the policy details will work themselves out. They need to embrace the kind of big narrative about who they are and what they stand for.

  3. As a cosmopolitan liberal, I'm very uncomfortable with China-bashing rhetoric like the proposed response (3) – even when, or especially when, it comes from my side.

  4. You're right, Brock (though "China-bashing rhetoric" is a bit over-the-top–unintended meanings like that are why I post anonymously). Nevertheless, hereby withdrawn. Please change "to CHINA" to "OVERSEAS." The impact is the same, as is my central point.

  5. Paul (above) is exactly right. When we're winning, our tendency to wonk-talk to the point of self-parody is cute: "What do we want? MORE JOBS! When do we want them? AS SOON AS IS REASONABLY POSSIBLE GIVEN THE POLITICAL REALITIES! With what provisos do we want them? WITH AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT THAT DOMESTIC JOB CREATION SHOULD NOT, AND, FOR PRACTICAL PURPOSES CANNOT, BE A PURELY DOMESTIC ENDEAVOR, AND THAT STRUCTURED TAX RELIEF AS A PRECURSOR TO WAGE ENHANCEMENT IS A NECESSARY STEP IN MANY INDUSTRIES, PARTICULARLY HEAVY MANUFACTURING; FURTHERMORE…"

    Here's a better, more "irresponsible" version of the above. I'll plead guilty in advance to waging class warfare.

    1. Do you think BILLIONAIRES need EVEN MORE WELFARE?

    2. Do you think WALL STREET TAX DODGERS care about your CHILDREN'S SCHOOLS?

    3. Do you think CORPORATE LAWYERS would choose PATRIOTISM over PROFITS?

  6. Anon's (first post's) diagnosis strikes me as almost right: I don't think the Dems suffer an 'urge to be erudite.' The Dems simply *are* more erudite. It's why they've embraced Dem positions. But since it is harder for smart folk than dumb folk to dumb down, Dems suffer an inherent structural disadvantage in the bite wars game. It's in this sense that Anon — along with Paul — is right, then. We've simply got to work harder to formulate the right bites, as Eli suggests.

    I take Brock's point about 'China-bashing,' but I don't think reference to job-exportation to China is China-bashing. 'Overseas' might be preferable, per Anon's suggestion, but I'm not sure of that, and I don't think in any event that 'the impact is the same.' 'Overseas,' for example, might for its part encourage a diffuse xenophobia — which would be worse than concern about China. Alternatively, 'overseas' might dissipate focus and thus muddle the message. Many Americans seem to be exercised and energized most by reference to concrete examples. And where trade-gaps and job-exportation are concerned, China is, by dint both of (a) the size of our debts to it and (b) its currency and other trade-relevant practices (including labor suppression), by far and away the most plausible choice of example.

    Here's a proposal: Let's try in these Comments to improve on the three Dem rejoinders proposed above.

  7. How about this?

    (3) Do you want all the DECENTLY PAYING JOBS THAT SUPPORT A VIBRANT MIDDLE CLASS to continue to DISAPPEAR?

    There's no need for diffuse xenophobia *or* concentrated sinophobia. And frankly, I don't care how "exercised and engergized" it gets people, nationalism is an ugly sentiment that good liberals shouldn't pander to.

  8. There's another sense in which the Dems suffer an inherent structural disadvantage: Generosity of spirit, in addition to the aforementioned erudition, prompts them to take Dem positions. But generosity of spirit renders them more loath to lie or to oversimplify too. The Republicans seem to suffer no such impediment any longer. I date it to the Willie Horton moment, circa 1988.

    Here's a first stab at reformulating the Dem soundbites above, hopefully simple and yet still honest:

    1) Do you want more tax handouts for Wall Street and it billionaire clients while all our roads, bridges, railroads and airports crumble?

    2) Do you want American jobs and the middle class to keep shrinking just so that China and our trade deficits can keep growing?

    3) Do you want American technology and national security to keep hollowing out, just so the rich can avoid paying their taxes?

    The crazies – um, the Republicans – do.

  9. I like Brock's suggestion. For what it's worth, however, I don't think citing China need be sinophobic or nationalistic. Currency manipulation and labor suppression are wrongful and globally unsustainable. It's as fair to criticize them as it is to criticize the many American excesses that many Dems (like me) do. The only question here, I think, is whether it's distracting to do so in the present context. Perhaps it is.

  10. Again, can we *please* leave China out of our message. If that's going to be part of the Democratic message, I don't want any part of it.

    It's a very short step from "Don't let our jobs go to China [Mexico]" to "Don't let those Chinese [Mexicans] come here and take our jobs."

    And I don't think linking China's growth to America's shrinking middle class is honest at all. As China becomes richer, it will be a larger market for our goods and services, making Americans wealthier. Economics is not a zero-sum game.

  11. Absolutely agree with Brock; let the GOP have a monopoly on phobic responses to everything they can think of. Let that become its brand name.

  12. Sorry, began composing my 9:29 post before seeing Bob's 9:20 one. I don't think citing China need be sinophobic or nationalistic: the currency policy of the Chinese Central Bank is a legitimate issue. But we should avoid making anything that remotely smacks of nationalism out of liberal and Democratic rhetoric, because it's a short and slippery slope to full-fledged xenophobia, as we've seen in Arizona recently.

  13. Economics *is* a zero-sum game to nations that play by mercantilist rules. The US played that game through much of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and grew faster at others' expense in consequence. Nations much more dirigiste today than the US was then play the game now. It's not sustainable, and renders it nearly impossible – if not full on impossible – for the Fed to manage the money supply and thereby modulate asset price volatility. I am far from alone in thinking that both (a) widening wealth and income disparities domestically, and (b) widening trade gaps transnationally, played critical complementary roles in (c) inflating the bubble whose recent burst (d) wrought our current ongoing slump. What we have here is symbiosis among (a) through (d). Each factor reinforces, and is reinforced by, the others. There's no dishonesty in citing (b) as among the factors in question. At worst there is distraction of an unsophisticated public, as suggested in my previous comment.

  14. Ah, Brock's and my posts appear to keep crossing through cyberspace. Have just seen Brock's 10.03 post. Point well taken, Brock. Certainly I might be guilty of the classic Dem vice – overestimating the subtlety of mind of some of the public. Happy to concede the point.

  15. Bob H: "3) Do you want American technology and national security to keep hollowing out..?"

    There is some evidence that other countriesd are catching up with the USA on innovation, an inevitable and normal process, just as the USA caught up with Britain, France and Germany late in the 19th century.

    What evidence at all do you have that US national security (in the conventional sense of a military establishment) is declining? The Pentagon budget under Obama is still absurd, not "equal to the next two navies" but "lots better than all the rest of the world's air forces, including long-standing allies".

    The Bush/Cheney administration did blow US national security in the wider sense by its boneheaded GWOT, but that isn't I think your point.

  16. With funds from this "Infrastructure Bank," they will build bright, shiny panels of death that will be suspended from the buildings of our great cities!

  17. Thanks to James for his question. The answer is that you must recall the point of this exercise. The aim is to develop a capacity on the part of the Dems to compose catchy soundbite slogans as well as the 'Republicans' do, while nevertheless doing a better job than the latter at remaining honest. The idea conveyed by slogan (3) is that as America falls behind economically thanks to Republican policies and obstructionism, its technological prowess and, therefore, ultimately its national security will be imperilled. America post-Bush looks more and more like late 16th, early 17th century Spain.

    All that you say about catch up and current military spending is of course true. But to say it — and to say it while doing justice to all apposite nuance — is not to engage in the Dem slogan exercise we've been trying to engage in here.

  18. I like bdbd's suggestion very much. Doubtless Senator Grassley will speak of 'solar death panels' and 'pulling the petroleum-based energy plug on grandma.'

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