How the tax deal debate is shaping up—and why we should remember our real opponents

Positions on the tax-cut debate are dividing across three separate dimensions. And on all of them, the differences among Democrats are slight compared to those between us and Republicans.

As far as I can tell, the furious debate over whether the tax deal is good or bad reflects disagreement among Democrats and liberals across three separate dimensions (which is why it will get complicated):

1. Idealists vs. Pragmatists. David Kurtz thinks the main news of Obama’s press conference yesterday is that Obama has finally declared that he’s a pragmatist, not an idealist.  I think that anyone who didn’t know that already was ignoring Obama’s entire biography, let alone his governing style, in favor of a few speeches.  In any case, those who look to a President primarily to articulate their political identity or defend their core principles clearly have reason to be more opposed to the deal than those who see the White House’s job as getting the best outcome in terms of legislation and regulations. In my book Ruling Passions I propose a division of moral labor: idealists should stick to citizen activism—and have a huge and genuine role to play there—while leaving legislation to the pragmatists.  But not everyone thinks that.  Of course, there are plenty of reasons pragmatists might, and do, oppose the deal, but the idealists will likely oppose it more bitterly.

2. Civic republicans vs. non-republican liberals. Civic republicanism (small “r,” of course) is an awkward label for a common position: that the fundamental issue of our time is the ability of the rich, and corporations, to game the political system and prevent the rest of us from exerting true self-governance.  (Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope, which I haven’t read yet, sounds from what I’ve heard like a pure instance of this view.  Richard Trumka’s angry statement opposing the deal, with its stress on income inequality and “moneyed interests,” is, perhaps surprisingly, another instance.)  In contrast, a non-republican liberal position is that giving material sustenance to the poor is more important than whether the rich get paid off, however regrettable and undeserved that is.  Randi Rhoads has been pushing this position hard on her show and her blog.  And Obama has explicitly taken it as well.

3. Immediate results people vs. repeated game players. Many of the deal’s supporters (Steve Benen, Ed Kilgore) have started to ask opponents what they propose as the next move if it’s voted down.  We opponents, frankly, don’t have a great answer so much as a different question: how can we change baseline expectations so as to achieve progressive outcomes in future negotiations?.  Everybody, of course, thinks that both the short and the long term are important to some degree.  But the deal’s supporters largely rely on the argument that results now are very important, either because in a recession those who lose benefits will face great and immediate hardship (see James), or because stimulus now will crucially boost Democratic prospects in 2012 (which is, to fill in the minor premise, an unusually important election because of the Affordable Care Act).  Most of the policy wonks, by the way, are lining up behind the deal because their professional deformation is to solve the immediate problem rather than looking at the future negotiating situation it sets up.  As professional biases go, this one’s honorable and functional—but still a bias.

My own all-things-considered opposition reflects my being a pragmatist (with respect to legislative negotiations, not politics as a whole), mostly a liberal but with growing sympathies for republicanism, and a fanatical repeated-gamer.

BUT we have to remember something.  Both sides of these debates have immeasurably more in common with each other than with the Republicans—who want to sabotage Democrats tactically and also destroy them ideologically; dislike the welfare state passionately and on principle while wanting as a matter of principle and practice to give the rich and corporations more money and power, not less; and are excellent players, on the oligarchical side, of both one-shot and repeated games.  Steve is dead right on this.  We should vigorously criticize one another.  But we should save our real outrage for its proper target: Republicans who callously and deliberately held the most vulnerable members of society hostage to the interests of the wealthiest.  Instead, I fear that the humane cop who wants to negotiate with the kidnapper and the tough-minded one who doesn’t will forget who the criminal is.

Update: “Non-republican liberal” seems a bit unfair to the category, since that label defines the school of thought in terms of what it’s not.  With some worries, since the usage is common in social-philosophy debates but can mean something quite different (and pejorative) in American political discourse, I propose calling these kinds of liberals welfarist liberals because their/our main concern is how people’s lives go, not how power is distributed.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

43 thoughts on “How the tax deal debate is shaping up—and why we should remember our real opponents”

  1. The deal is not final until the legislation is passed, and it's no surprise that you have plenty of people on both sides of the deal talking it down. What else are they supposed to be saying: 'boy, we really snookered those [Dems/Reps]'?

    I haven't heard a plausible scenario from a pragmatic gamer how a better deal could be had in 2011, or how no deal now plus a filibuster of a worse deal in 2001 would be anything but a political disaster for Obama and the Dems in 2012. I've heard from plenty of idealists that a political disaster for Obama and the Dems is just the thing. OK, whatever floats your boat, but no one should be surprised if Obama and the Dems see that question differently.

  2. I thought this was an interesting and insightful post – except for the last paragraph.

    I know it's hopeless, but I will try one more time. It is simply not the case that R's and conservatives want "to give the rich and corporations more money and power, etc., etc." We do dislike (intensely) the welfare state on principle. Basically, we believe the way you help all citizens of this republic is to make the pie bigger and not to waste energy redistributing a smaller pie. The other thing we believe is that you help people by teaching them how to fish, not by making them dependent on a welfare state run by some elite group, however selected.

    We also do not believe you libs are our enemy; we understand you have a different way of looking at the world and these are things intelligent people can disagree about. We do advocate for our solutions, and as you say, sometimes more effectively than other times.

    All that said, there was a time, before the seventies, when D's as a rule were more empathetic, more compassionate, and especially more tolerant of other views than R's. I don't know what happened, but it has not been that way for a long time. I have been very comfortable with my transition from a McGovern voter in 72 to a Reagan voter in 84, and R's ever since.

  3. Neville Chamberlain was a “pragmatist”. “Pragmatist” is another word for chump.

  4. @ Redwave72

    Making the pie bigger isn't helpful when all (or almost all) the gains go to those at the top of economic heap. Look at what's happened to income distribution in this country since Ronnie Raygun was elected in 1980. Yes, GDP is up (way up), but so is distributional inequality by any measure you choose to use.

    A rising floats all boats, but most of the boats in our society are on trailers: they aren't in the water to be raised.

    Reagan's trickle-down economics appears to me to have been more like piss-on economics.

  5. Dennis, I will stipulate that there is more inequality, though I would also contend that that is a more recent phenomenon than the Reagan years. Most people are still better off economically though than in the good old days. People forget how poor the south, Appalachia, and the ghettos were even in those good old days. But I still believe it's our job to provide equal opportunity, not equal results. A major difference between the conservative and liberal world view.

    There is a lot of noise involved with all this; we are not dealing with a situation where either side has had free reign to test their own policy prescriptions. What we can say is this: the public school system is in shambles – kids don't read, in the ghetto there is a cultural stigma among the young attached to superior academic performance, the nature of work has changed due to computerization etc., etc. I would claim income inequality has more to do with social and educational malfunction than economic policy. There's lots of blame to go around. I consider myself lucky to have grown up when schools taught the basics well, when teachers were educated, when there was not moral equivalence that was accepting of all kinds of disfunctional behaviors. Life was simpler, choices and goals were clearer, and success was more universally defined. My generation and those that followed then started questioning everything with the predictable result over time that today's youth has nothing stable to latch onto.

    These are generalizations – there are many fine kids achieving wonderful things, but anyone in management today knows that new employees generally lack all of the basic skills and would be helpless without spell check and a calculator, and forget about composing a paragraph. In my parents' generation, any decent secretary could compose a business letter for the boss to sign, error free, set to go. Today, we call them administrative assistants but they are incapable of doing anything correctly. So management learns to type its own letters on a PC and fires the AA's – another entire layer of worker without a job, because they can't add value. And we have been watching these skills deteriorate for at least 25 years.

    Instead of ignoring this mess and making excuses for graduating skilless kids who waste their youth in school obtaining a meaningless diploma, let's remind them that if they expect a better life, they had better buckle down and learn something. And that means that teachers' unions need to re-orient their goals and members' skills as well. Otherwise, 99 weeks of unemployment insurance won't be enough.

    You might as well make unemployment benefits perpetual. But then how will we incent anyone to work? Watch what happens to the pie then, but that is the logical end of the liberal ideology. Is this heartless? I contend it is more heartless to create the soft landings and safety nets that allow potential to be wasted and excuse lack of effort. I am all for safety nets for those who are physically or mentally challenged, but everyone else needs to perform and realize some part of their potential or we lose as a society and an economy. And it's largely up to the individual to perform. We still see plenty of mobility within our society (in both directions) such that we know that people can succeed. That's why immigrants come here and stay here and work their butts off.

  6. Redwave72: I thought it should have been obvious in context that the "Republicans" I was talking about were the Republican leadership in Congress, who held unemployment benefits hostage in exactly the way portrayed. Obama has repeatedly drawn a distinction between the GOP Congressional leadership and ordinary Republicans in the country, many of whom are of course decent people, and I'd draw the same one.

    As for wanting the rich to have more power, again this could be a matter of elite rhetoric rather than the party-in-the-electorate's belief, but the drumbeat of statements that only letting the rich keep more money can possibly–as a matter of a priori principle–create jobs really does seem to me a principled stance in favor of upwards redistribution. And rhetoric to the effect that this mildly progressive administration hates business and is trying to destroy corporations seems to me a principled stance in favor of ever-less government regulation and oversight of business, all the time, without exceptions, and for its own sake. Finally, there's the fact that the congressional GOP unanimously opposed the DISCLOSE act: it likes not only unlimited corporate involvement in politics but unlimited and secret involvement. That's a matter of power.

    Again, there may be a significant stream of dissent in the rank-and-file Republican electorate on these matters, but if so you need to organize better because I haven't heard it. Certainly if you want to attack educational bureaucracy and make that the core of your Republicanism, you'll get a lot of Democratic allies—including me, and Obama—though I think it's a huge mistake to ignore the fact that "back in the day" high schools could uphold high standards because the vast majority of people dropped out of them, or never attended in the first place. (Nor do I think that permanent unemployment insurance at a fraction of the level of a paycheck would make us a bunch of unemployed shirkers; every other OECD country has much higher levels of income support without all or even most of them seeing that result.) But at the national level, the party's main legislative positions objectively and consistently reflect the principles I named.

  7. As much as this deal disgusts me, I can see a certain opportunity emerge should the Republicans fail to deliver the votes. In the event the "deal" doesn't pass, Obama simply turns the filibuster on its head and vetoes any attempts to restore the tax cuts. Then the game of chicken begins. Make the Republicans know that they passed on the best deal they were ever going to see.

    It is a strategy that will roil markets and which will cause a great deal of pain. But come January, the Republicans have the House again, and they aren't going to be able to so easily dodge the responsibility for deficits. They aren't going to be so able to stand back and play deficit hawks while pushing for a huge tax cut.

    Obama also needs to be ready to roll the cost of our Iraq/Afghan adventures into the defense authorization. NO MORE SUPPLEMENTALS. It is time to use fiscal discipline as the rationale for walking away from the trillion plus dollar debacle that sees success only when the military are acting as bagmen to pay off the various participants.

    We have seen the results of our decade long experiment with these tax cuts. The current economic debacle speaks volumes. Of course if anyone really believe that continuing the tax cuts really will make the top earners invest in employment opportunities, make the second year contingent on unemployment being below 7.5 percent.

    Our government is completely compromised and broken already. The choice is whether to continue down the path of tax cut palliatives for the well to do and wait for the ultimate economic collapse, or to intervene and change direction.

    I can hear Dandy Don singing from the great beyond….."turn out the lights, the party's over".

  8. Great post. Really excellent summary.

    Let's recognize that it is the President's betrayal of his party that makes this an internecine struggle. It is the President, who wants to criticize and fight his base, and it is the President, who agreed to a "compromise" which features both versions of Democratic desiderata so weak as to discredit Democratic policies, and setups for future Republican victories, as central design elements.

    It's impossible for me to credit that the President and the Democrats, who support this "compromise" are not aware of what they are doing, strategically.

  9. My point being: Obama *is* among our real enemies, and among the most dangerous and destructive of our real enemies. He's not on *our* side, if our side is opposed to the corporate plutocracy.

  10. TO the best of my recollection, the last presidential candidate to make the threat of corporate power a theme of his campaign was Morris Udall back in 1976. It is plausible that no one who represents a true threat to corporate power ever gets past New Hampshire. If Obama had been such a threat, he would similarly have failed to advance very far past Iowa.

  11. RickG writes:

    "In the event the “deal” doesn’t pass, Obama simply turns the filibuster on its head and vetoes any attempts to restore the tax cuts. Then the game of chicken begins. Make the Republicans know that they passed on the best deal they were ever going to see."

    Rick, you need to lose "this notion" of yours that Obama is someone you'd want next to you in a fire fight.

    If there is one thing we have learned it is that this President doesn't have the chops for fisticuffs…

    This isn't LBJ. This isn't FDR (I welcome their hate), This isn't HST.

    This dog don't hunt. Never has. Never will.

    Any sort of pragmatic political forecasting has to take The Great Compromiser's distaste for hard fought battles into account.

    A failure to do so is just to indulge in a fantasy.

    He is a patsy.

    Forecast forward from that…

    Of course I agree with Andrew's main premise.

    Which is to say: He may be a patsy, but at least he is our patsy.

    Ultimately in 2012 we will have to support him.

    That goes without question…

  12. I like this post a lot. Good way of thinking about this debate, and the problems on the left in general.

    If one arbitrarily sets a scale of 0-100 along these 3 axes… I'd be something like (35,55,70)

    My gut says Obama is more like (80,80,30)

    I don't know that this works for non liberals.

  13. I am a 61 year old retired female. I have voted for every democrat in every election since I became eligible to vote. I will never vote nor give money or time to the party again if this passes. I have swallowed my pride and defended this party for years, I am done.

  14. Redwave72 wrote, "We do dislike (intensely) the welfare state on principle. Basically, we believe the way you help all citizens of this republic is to make the pie bigger and not to waste energy redistributing a smaller pie."

    You make two errors. First, all the empirical data is that, up to a point, greater equality in the distribution of wealth means _more_ economic growth, not less. The most unequal countries in the world tend to be authoritarian sh*tholes. Putting aside truly socialist/communist regimes, the trend is against your thesis.

    Second, lots of energy is currently spent redistributing wealth. The problem with most conservatives and libertarians—and even unfortunately most liberals and leftists—is that they don't understand that the redistribution is primarily upwards, in the form of economic rents. The largest source of economic rent is land rent, which economists have understood since Ricardo to be completely unearned. There are other rents, of course (mainly forms of monopoly rent).

    Look at the financial sector. Its share of GDP has increased enormously since around 1980. Supposedly, in return, this has made the economy more efficient because of better capital allocation. Even if the recent collapse of the worldwide housing bubble didn't show this to be utterly and completely and laughably false, the fact is that the trend in GDP growth has been slowing at the same time as the fraction of GDP devoted to FIRE has been increasing. So for the "financial innovation helps" thesis to be true, it would have to be the case that GDP growth would be _extremely_ slow in the absence of these "innovations". This is implausible, to say the least. We can conclude that the financial sector gains since 1980 or so have all been rent extraction. And it's clear that this has also led to greater inequality of wealth.

    "The other thing we believe is that you help people by teaching them how to fish, not by making them dependent on a welfare state run by some elite group, however selected."

    Unfortunately, by far and away the largest collectors of "welfare" are the rich. Not every rich person is a welfare collector, but if you go down a list of the richest individuals, most are rent collectors, hence welfare recipients.

    One personal example was when I overheard some people in a fast food restaurant in the 1990s complaining about something Clinton did to make speculation in housing less lucrative. (I don't recall what the action was; and one of the dumber things Clinton did make it more lucrative, as it applies to one's own house.) Since the way people make money speculating in homes is strictly by collecting rent—structures depreciate, land appreciates as its rental value goes up—these people in essence were whining that the government was slightly diminishing their state-granted privileges. (As Mill put it, to make money in their sleep while doing nothing.) _That_ is a far, far greater welfare dependency than what you're referring to.

    Certainly the extremely poor get some benefits, as do union members (who are also collecting some rent), but by far and away the biggest beneficiaries are the wealthy, whether you take it on a per-recipient basis, or a sum total. Again, this isn't merely in the form of direct corporate welfare in Federal appropriations, or the slightly less direct form of "tax expenditures." The main form is government-granting of rights to collect rent.

  15. Ed Whitney has it exactly right. Politicians who don't have some kind of deal (explicit or implicit) in place with the corporatist powers that be are simply not allowed to advance past a certain point. They are allowed a few seats in Congress and even the occasional vanity Presidential run (i.e., Kucinich or Paul the Elder), but no sniff of real power. Unfortunately, in terms of the second axis the kind of action required to return to something like an acceptable civic republican balance would probably come close to burning the whole structure down at this point.

  16. Speaking of my own personal reaction to Obama's supposed "betrayal"—which I think is at the root of liberal discontent: it's utterly wrong to think of it in isolation. On their own merits, the arguments for this deal are reasonable, if not indisputable. The problem is that they come against a background of fundamental betrayals. First is Obama's coddling of the banksters, e.g. his laughable appointment of people who either didn't see the bubble coming, or took actions that made it worse. (Summers, Geithner, ties to Rubin.) That's apart from his actions during the crisis, which involve much more than legislation (ie, actions of Treasury).

    Second is his increasing our involvement in Afghanistan. The usual Obama supporter response is that "he campaigned on increasing our effort in Afgh." So? While of course I understood Obama wasn't all that liberal (having consulted his ADA scores in the Senate), I would have thought he'd understand that the history of that region meant that any long-term occupation of Afgh was bound to fail, and would cut his losses in a way subtle enough to comply with his campaign rhetoric. But no; he decided to dump more blood and treasure into the meat grinder. To what end?

  17. Redwave72:

    "Basically, we believe the way you help all citizens of this republic is to make the pie bigger and not to waste energy redistributing a smaller pie. The other thing we believe is that you help people by teaching them how to fish, not by making them dependent on a welfare state run by some elite group, however selected."

    EVERYONE wants to make the pie bigger. NO ONE wants to make people dependent. These "beliefs" are conservative, but universal.

    In terms of policy, however, conservatives use these platitudes to bludgeon to redistribute wealth upward. There isn't a clearer example than the current debate, where Republicans, in the midst of an historically deep recession, demanded that unemployment benefits be paid for and tax cuts for the 1% be made permanent, with no regard to the huge deficits created.

    In other words, no matter how many times you sigh and wring your hands over people misunderstanding conservatives, the fact is that we DO understand conservatives. Objectively, they favor distributing government benefits to the extremely wealthy, and cutting off government benefits to the vulnerable. The Republicans are a sick, vicious, venal pack without principles.

  18. Redwave72:

    Your post makes me think you are sincere, so I'll spend some time on why it misses the point. The ultra are rich in large part not because they contributed to productivity and jobs, but because they gamed the system at everyone else's expense. From no-bid contracts to excessive military spending to bank bailouts to modifications in laws when they become inconvenient (think rewriting copyright) and pushing for ever more centralization in Washington when they can control it (eliminating state laws in favor of centralized and more easily manipulated ones in Washington, such as happened over organic food standards) to subsidizing oil, the list goes on and on and on.

    It is simply bad history at best and a lie at worst to say they are rich because they work hard at serving "the market."

    In practice you support in practice a welfare state for the powerful and whatever they decide to leave behind for everyone else.

  19. Finally the other shoes drop:

    And so Krugman has finally weighed in…

    (And the Congressional Dems in their non-binding closet)

    Check it out Andrew and let us know where you think Paul's analysis falls on your spectrums.

  20. Good summing up. I'm not sold on the terms "civic republicans" and "non-republican liberals," but we're definitely having discussions as you describe. The terms do break down at some point, though. For instance, many activists (certainly not all) are also quite pragmatic, and one key critique of Obama and some of the congressional Dems has been that they're lousy negotiators. One of the better comments I heard about Ted Kennedy after his death was that he had the credibility to say, 'this is the best deal we could get,' and because he was both a diehard liberal on values and a shrewd negotiator, he was believed. Some current Dem leaders don't have that credibility (or at least reputation) on one or both fronts. (Obama lashing out at the liberal base instead of the people who have openly sworn to destroy him and have worked to do so doesn't help things.)

    Similarly, on the civic and non-republican front, I tend to view it more in terms of the social contract. While some civically-minded Republicans do exist among average Americans, the GOP leadership doesn't care about the social contract at all, nor does their rabid base – at least, for people not in the white conservative tribe. Some liberals are more focused on the baseline safety net of the social contract, and some others are more focused on the reigning-in-excesses-and-abuse part – but of course, they're related. I'm honestly torn about the current deal. On the one hand, there is an immediate need. On the other, capitulating yet again really hurts the middle and long games. America is increasingly becoming a plutocracy. The Republicans are entirely plutocratic, shamelessly and nihilistically so. The Democratic Party is partially plutocratic and corrupt, and it waters down any focus or message – and consequently, they don't unabashedly lobby for the bottom 98%. (Citizens United sure didn't help.) The Democrats are disappointing as usual. Republicans shouldn't get a pass, though, as they often do, on screwing over their own constituents (hence your post title). Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post.

  21. Dan: "EVERYONE wants to make the pie bigger. NO ONE wants to make people dependent. These 'beliefs' are conservative, but universal."

    Obviously, not, as you, yourself, just explained. But, conservatives and libertarians, many of whom do NOT seek such goals, are also aware that espousing their actual goals would be self-defeating. It is one of the basic asymmetries in politics, between liberals and conservatives.

    It ought to be a great strength for the liberals, that they can openly and honestly proclaim and explain their desiderata, but their resentful and selfish opponents must lie. But, instead, in practice, it becomes a great weakness, as they either either assume common purposes that don't exist, or fail to explain what their opponents are "really" after. Watch the Dem and Rep talking heads and see if it isn't true: the Rep will always, always have a punchy summary view of what the Dems are trying to do; the Dem will gloss over the purposes of the Reps, or just accept that the core of the argument is over the right means to a common purpose, ignoring strategy for tactics.

    I don't think Reps are "a sick, vicious, venal pack without principles" — not all of them, anyway. But, I also don't frustrate myself arguing with liars, on the false premise of common purpose. Lots of people seek a bigger piece of the pie, and a smaller pie is actually a means to that end. Sometimes, it looks like that when one side is exaggerating the benefits and minimizing or denying the costs (as liberals and Dems are as prone to do, as anyone), and their opponents are insisting on greater realism. Militant environmentalist v. businessman exploiting natural resources might look that way, even when the businessman isn't trying to steal a mountain of gold and leave behind a toxic waste dump for someone else to clean up.

    We all have our points of view, and no one has a proprietary monopoly on truth. The reason to have that argument between the environmentalist and the businessman is that the common truth really does lie somewhere in the middle. Selfish isn't wrong, we need gold and stuff; and the altruism of the environmentalist isn't right, just because it is idealistic.

    The problem I have with Obama is that having a Reaganite play a liberal Democrat on television leaves the left-half of the political spectrum unable to argue a coherent point of view. Call it betrayal, if you like; the particular drama and pejorative vocabulary doesn't matter to me. The problem is the policy compromise is wrong for the country. It ends up being all and more on "one-side".

    Obama actually brought tax-breaks for business in immediate expensing to the table. That was something he — "our side", the liberal side — was arguing for! Oh, my the arm-twisting that must have taken.

    Obama doesn't represent a liberal point of view, and he doesn't want to hear a liberal point of view. He eliminates it from consideration before negotiation even begins. Many commentators interpret that as poor negotiating tactics, or negotiating with himself. But, that's not what is going on. Liberals and progressives, and their points of view, are simply being excluded from power. Quietly and efficiently excluded.

    As liberal observes above, there are reasonable arguments for this deal. The problem is that none of them are in any wise liberal or progressive arguments.

    Conservatives actually do have a pretty reasonable argument on the extension of unemployment compensation eligibility. An extended dole is very hard on peoples' skills and morale. But, the Liberal/Progressive argument come-back should be a Jobs program: a massive increase in government infrastructure spending and education spending. Have a surge in education and training to meet the surge in unemployment. Instead of $200/week in dole, $800/week for work, and get things that need to be done, done.

    We have had a major financial crisis, and a alphabet soup of programs thrown at banks, but no effective program to stem or meliorate the wave of foreclosures. There's a huge scandal filling the financial press headlines, with regard to illegal process in foreclosure and destructive incentives among the servicers and foreclosure mills. Nothing is done.

    Democratic Administrations should be about restoring the balance of power in politics, by acting, somewhat, on behalf of ordinary folks — the poor and working class interests get represented in the Democratic Party, traditionally — and against predatory business. We've got predatory business up the yin-yang in this country, and an Administration without a prosecutorial gene.

    Ed Whitney and drkrick may have it right: corporatist power has a death grip on the country. If that's the problem, it is a very serious problem, and it won't be met by holding one's nose, and voting for Obama, because "it could be worse" with some Republican horror show.

    It is worse, already, because there's no real debate, no real struggle going on in our politics.

  22. Short-term gain for long-term pain. The argument that we need to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits now – along with all the other stuff in this agreement – is very short-sighted. I am sure that if this passes that somewhere between January and 2012 we will get hit over the head again by deficit hawks blaming Democrats for the ballooning deficit. And guess where the cuts to "fix" the deficit will come from? The only places there is a big enough piece of the budget to truly reduce the deficit – Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security. And so the lower and middle classes get hit hard and long term as they will be the most dependent on these programs. I say let the whole thing go down in flames and work on preserving our existing safety net. By the way, why hasn't anyone pointed out that the Republicans in Congress refused to extend unemployment benefits because they weren't paid for, yet I hear NO-ONE talking about how to pay for the $900 billion the current proposal will cost

  23. @ Kathy

    Actually, the only place in the budget big enough to patch those holes is the Pentagon budget. As far as the Republicans in Congress go, they aren't serious about deficit reduction. You can't be serious about deficit reduction while simultaneously cutting taxes.

  24. Kathy is correct. No one is going to cut defense– even our "liberal" "Democratic" President hasn't tried. So the social safety net is going bye-bye. Probably the EPA and the EEOC and the CDC and a whole bunch of other good things, too. Possibly as soon as April or May (when the debt ceiling is reached). Say, where is Mark to defend this piece of shit deal, anyway?

  25. I'm a new big fan.

    I'd suggest "humanitarian liberals" rather than "welfarist liberals" just because the term "welfare" is so closely associated with a particular kind of gov't aid (in the US). And welfare is so controversial politically, some people won't be able to read the term "welfarist" without having an emotional response. In related news, they're probably the ones we need to reach most.

  26. "…in the ghetto there is a cultural stigma among the young attached to superior academic performance…

    The persistence of this myth among political conservatives and others is astounding. Black children who do well in school are not social pariahs in their communities. They are not being ostracized or targeted for beat downs by those who feel they are violating some cultural norm. Getting good grades in school is not seen by black students as acting white no matter how much people like John McWhorter and Shelby Steele argue to the contrary. Black students who choose to sit together at the same table in the school cafeteria day after day are no more choosing to isolate themselves than are white students who choose to sit at different tables day after day. Black folks up and down the line need a break from these sorts of facile assertions.

  27. Redwave: "But I still believe it’s our job to provide equal opportunity, not equal results. A major difference between the conservative and liberal world view."

    This isn't framed correctly. Liberals would say that if there isn't equal enough results, then there isn't equal enough opportunity. The assumption behind this is that people are generally the same. And to the degree that some people have more drive, intelligence, etc. it is not a conscious choice they make, but that they have received advantage, be it genes, social capital, etc.

    The idea is also that our economy is simply not a perfectly meritocratic system. Winning is usually not a reflection of effort, but of structural advantage. Thus, when the bill comes due for basic services we feel the government needs to provide, those at the top, having received so much fortune less from greater effort but social position, their burden must be greater – especially because any such sacrifice will hurt them the least. (From here you can make the trickle down argument, but that's an entirely separate and controversial economic claim).

  28. The Republican calculus on the tax deal is clearly designed to bring about McConnell's goal of making Obama a one-term President. And it will likely succeed. The tax cuts are temporary in name only. If they're set to expire at the end of 2012 do you think making them permanent will be a key issue in the campaign? Will Obama run on letting them expire? Will anyone believe him if he claims that this time really for sure we're going to cancel them only for the rich?

    Obama is a smart guy and simply can't have not seen this. As Bruce W, Kathy B and others have said, he does not see representing the Left as part of his obligation. I think he knows he's bit off more than he can chew and he's either deliberately or unconsciously setting himself up to bring his administration to an end as quickly as possible.

    There's no law that says we have to select the incumbent. I think Democrats should seriously consider asking Obama to step aside in 2012. I have to say I now regret now the work I did on the campaign and voting for him. Hillary probably would have served us better. If he's the candidate for the next election I'll either stay at home or vote Nader.

  29. @Matt Smith: I actually thought of using "humanitarian." Maybe I'll go with that instead of "welfarist" for the reasons you say—if this theme is something that I see playing out and feel like blogging on in the future.

  30. "Non-republican liberal", "welfarist", "humanitarian" — part of the difficulty here is that you might need to have a category of people, who are not altogether sincere in their presented intentions. The neoliberal contingent, to which Obama and most of his economic advisors belong, is an undifferentiated mix of conservative paternalism and subversive hypocrisy. They are often big on de minimus "nudge" policies, and love talking social security reform. But, to me, their emblematic policy is tax subsidies for low-wage work. Simple incidence theory tells us that such policies are very liable to become, in practical effect, subsidies to employers, but, on the surface, it is easy to argue that they are humanitarian in a paternalistic way, especially if checks are mailed directly to the poor workers. Even if you don't agree with my pejorative skepticism, "paternalism" has a long political history, without, currently, the strong connotations of "welfarist".

  31. Eli, you commit the fallacy of assuming the truth of what you are trying to prove.

    Mr. Cox, I urge you to take a seat at one of those dining room tables you reference and really listening to the conversation. Or better yet, study the lyrics on your kids' favorite rap records.

    One last comment before I erase this blog from my favorites list (or at least retire my acerbic comments pen): there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve, trying to earn, trying to secure your family, obtaining the wherewithall to support your favorite causes and charities. It is a useful incentive for me to want to give my daughter every possible, but fairly earned advantage. The government should not be confiscating more than one-third of my AFTER TAX savings at my death. We do not advocate upward redistribtion but we do advocate democratic capitalism. If you want to live in a socialist society, you have plenty to choose from around the world, some pleasant, some not. But that is not what Americans have traditionally chosen, and conservatives are hoping and working to roll back the progressive socialist agenda and their "gains."

    Finally, as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design. Life is not fair, we will not all have the equivalent opportunities or breaks, and we should not assume equality of results. But, the best you can do is the best you can and you owe that to your family, and to yourself. Something to think about the next time you find yourself tripping over your class war paranoia.

  32. "Finally, as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design. Life is not fair, we will not all have the equivalent opportunities or breaks, and we should not assume equality of results."

    Oh dear. Another "be rich, or suffer and die" promoter. Right, the American Dream, where one can vividly watch others suffer the penalties due the unlucky, as you so far have not had to. I'm working as hard as I can to make sure that the estate tax is maximized, as well as tax on *all* income of something like the top 5%, now and forever more. I spent 30 years of adulthood thinking that a centrist approach was socially maximizing, but the crass superficial greed and ethical banality of Redwave72 and *his* (it's almost a he) fellow travelers prove the stupidity of that. I'm sorry for having voted Republican a number of times. Won't happen again.

  33. @ Redwave

    "We believe in equal opportunity, not equal results."

    Fine. I believe equal opportunity is a goal we should all be working towards. If I understand you correctly, you believe we're already there. Allow me to ask a couple of questions of you:

    1. Does it matter where someone is educated? I'm thinking particularly of higher education here, although primary and secondary schools certainly influence where a given student can go for higher ed.

    2. If where matters, then how does a system that provides two or three distinct entrance tracks to highly desirable schools serve (or even illustrate) that goal of equal opportunity?

    By the way, if you decide that where doesn't matter, I'm going to ask you why it is that our Supreme Court looks like this:

    Harvard College, Harvard Law.

    Stanford University, Harvard Law.

    Georgetown University, Harvard Law.

    Holy Cross, Yale Law.

    Cornell, Harvard Law, Columbia Law.

    Stanford University, Harvard Law.

    Princeton University, Yale Law.

    Princeton University, Yale Law.

    Princeton University, Harvard Law.

    We have a very diverse Supreme Court. Both Harvard and Yale Law schools are heavily represented.

    Our President was Occidental College, Columbia University, Harvard Law. His predecessor was Yale University, Harvard Business School. His predecessor was Georgetown, Yale Law.

    Do you think it matters where you go, much?

  34. I wasn't going to make further comment, but since Dennis asks a direct question, I will try to answer.

    You bet it makes a difference. I happened to be a college classmate of Mark's. I was damn lucky my Dad sacrificed and worked his butt off to be able to pay my way through there. I am truly grateful to him.

    That said, my philosphy is that the goal of "equal opportunity" is not to be taken so literally. We are not all going to have that. I certainly have had to battle my way up the food chain in business versus characters for whom the way seemed to be paved. I never wasted a second begrudging them their "extra" opportunity, and just kept learning and working and plugging along with faith that my talent might be recognized. And it has been a satisfying enough career.

    The other thing I would say, is that though you list some great schools, and certainly I went to one, I have seen just as many successful people who went to more mainstream type schools. My daughter chose to go to a state school and wants to teach and coach in a challenging urban environment. God bless her, she's going to make her mark if she sticks with her plan. I want her to have that opportunity and am happy to pay her way and would also like to make the other aspects of her life as comfortable as I can. I think that's a positive incentive.

    Actually, I am more concerned, as you know if you read my previous comments, with the fact that our elementary and secondary public schools are failing too many kids, which is a real crime. I have come to believe that the establishment canards about what makes a good school, lots of money, small class sizes, the latest teaching techniques and texts, focus on self actualization, are all wrong. I think I was educated in a much better system in the 50's and 60's – despite the emphasis on rote learning, which I believe turned out to be the right way for many skills (multiplication, vocabulary training, concentration skills among them). Also, the constant drilling on grammar, spelling and sentence structure was a great thing to have. In short the fundamentals.

    We desperately need one other thing in our schools and communities. That's a cultural environment that values academic success and celebrates learning. That means teachers, parents, and kids. Sure you have that in the Ivy league, but you do not have that in the secondary schools where it's really needed, except in the "Honors Classes."

    I can tell you that business is committed to providing opportunites for employees of all backgrounds to be successful, but they must have the skills to add value. They shouldn't need to go to an Ivy League school to get them.

  35. @ Redwave

    I went to public universities, too. One of them is the campus Mark teaches at. I had no idea when I was in school how important the Ivy thing was/is. Had I understood it at the time, I would have made some different choices. One of my choices (I have a sister a year younger and a brother 3 years younger) was to not go to Dartmouth (the Ivy that I was accepted at, and I'm from the era where the Ivies colluded on admissions), because my parents said (of the financial aid package), "It will be awfully tight, but we can make it work." So I went to public schools (a community college, a Cal State campus, UCLA and finally, Kansas State).

    I got as good an education as people who went to Stanford, Cal, UCLA or any of the Ivies. What I didn't get was the network of contacts. Had I understood how important that was, I would have gone to Princeton for my doctorate.

    So, given that the network development is an important part of this, how is it even remotely equal opportunity for someone connected out the wazoo gets into those network development incubators, while other clearly more deserving students are told to look elsewhere?

  36. HA HA HA!!!

    Thanks, Redwave – that was fantastic! I haven't had that good a laugh in a couple of days.

    First you gave us

    "I still believe it’s our job to provide equal opportunity, not equal results. A major difference between the conservative and liberal world view."

    It's a major difference between libs and conservatives! You liberals and your silly unrealistic ideals. But make no mistake, it's our "job" to ensure equal opportunity. I mean, if we didn't make at least that part a firm moral commitment, then you might think that conservatives are just as heartless as we're sometimes portrayed. And of course that can't be.

    Then, less than 48 hours later, you let us know:

    "my philosphy is that the goal of “equal opportunity” is not to be taken so literally. We are not all going to have that."

    Ha! Excellent! It turns out the major difference is that conservatives don't believe in either equal results OR equal opportunity.

    "I have been very comfortable with my transition from a McGovern voter in 72 to a Reagan voter in 84, and R’s ever since."

    Yeah, I bet you're comfortable with that. Inequality of opportunity/results hasn't worked out too badly for you, has it?

  37. OK Navigator, explain how you are going to assure either equal opportunity or equal results. And if you were somehow succcessful at the latter, how you are going to incent people to perform?

  38. First, kudos to Redwave for being a voice of reason and, perhaps more important, civility, on what can otherwise be a pretty uncivil forum. Kudos, also, to his/her many opponents who've responded with equal civility.

    I have three points to toss in. One is that, despite the grousing on this board about the Ivies and "social capital," America truly has been a land of opportunity in my own case. My father dropped out of school in the eighth grade, but I nonetheless attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School. What I benefited from was the Ivies' commitment to fair play in admissions and needs-based financial aid starting in the late 'Fifties, first for non-prep school white males like myself and subsequently for women and minorities. The second point is related to the first point in a somewhat convoluted way: to put it as a simple question, why has $250k been chosen as the cutoff point for people who should be taxed more because they don't deserve to keep what they're now earning after-tax? $250k isn't millionnaires and billionaires and people with five or ten houses, it's two MDs who've just finished their residencies. The connection between my first two points involves the concept of people "deserving" where they end up and what they earn. It appears that some people posting to this board need to ask themselves whether they believe that (A) the doctors at teaching hospitals and the players in the best symphony orchestras and the students at the Ivies are just lucky boobs (or rent-seekers) who got where they are without having demonstrated merit or else that (B) demonstrated merit should be irrelevant to economic compensation. If the former, they ought to ask what factual basis, if any, they have for their belief. If the latter, that introduces my third point, which is that if they truly believe that compensation should not be awarded on the basis of actual or perceived merit, then why are they merely arguing that marginal tax rates should be raised by five percentage points on incomes above $250k? Don't their beliefs argue for a capital levy to sweep away all undeserved wealth, including the wealth of the George Soroses and John Kerrys? And why, if their beliefs are correct, are they arguing that "we" the entire bottom 98% should be sharing the benefits of what the top 2% pay? Shouldn't the entire top 50% be expropriated in order to level up the bottom 50%? Indeed, why is the conversation about Americans only? Shouldn't all citizens of the world in the top 50% of income be expropriated down to the median worldwide income?

    If you say that the foregoing arguments are silly because they are too extreme, ask yourself WHY you believe they are too extreme: why you believe Kerry and Soros should be deemed to have fulfilled their moral duty by paying an additional five percentage points on their income while retaining their millions and billions; why you believe that people who earn $249k shouldn't be taxed more to benefit the people who are making $24,900; why you believe our moral duty stops at our shorelines (conveniently avoiding what would otherwise be an economic sacrifice for virtually all Americans). If you say you perceive valid counter arguments, I wouldn't be surprised if those arguments included merit, incentive, economic growth — the very arguments that Republicans make for the Bush-era marginal rates (remembering that the Bush tax cuts reduced ALL Americans' tax rates, not just those of higher earners, from their Clinton-era levels).

    And then you might perceive that you and the Republicans are people who weigh the same arguments and counter arguments and come out five percentage points apart, not antagonists in some cosmic game of GOOD versus EVIL. And then you might consider the possibility that Republicans and yourselves are decent people who have an honest disagreement about how much is too much — particularly when the rhetoric is about millionnaires and billionnaires but the proposed legislation is about the two young doctors.

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