Voting and inequality

This election is a straight-up choice between a candidate who wants to raise taxes on the rich and a candidate who wants to keep cutting them. Isn’t it obvious that opponents of plutocracy ought to care deeply which candidate wins?

In an election year where one presidential candidate wants to raise taxes on the rich and the other wants to cut them, and immediately after near-party-line votes on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts for income above $250,000 a year, you’d think that Tom Edsall’s review of Joseph Stiglitz’s tract against inequality would acknowledge that the voters have a choice to make about the issue. But no:

Prospects for programs boosting public investment are virtually nil. Republicans stand a good chance of taking control of both branches of Congress after the next election. Their presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, may capture the White House. If so, his tax and regulatory proposals will most likely embody all that Stiglitz finds repugnant. Even if Romney loses, the American political system does not appear ready to respond to Stiglitz’s call to arms.

Yes, it’s true: due in part to the new system of campaign finance put in place by the Republican Supreme Court, even Democrats find their ability to legislate against plutocracy limited by their need to raise campaign funds from plutocrats. Simply re-electing Obama and keeping the Senate in Democratic hands won’t change that. But if Republicans manage to take both the Presidency and the Senate on a frankly plutocratic platform – which would enable them to lock in their partisan control of the judiciary for another couple of decades – that will tend to exacerbate the trend toward more inequality, while a Democratic victory would exert pressure in the opposite direction.

This is more or less the same argument I had with Glenn Loury in a bloggingheads diavlog that unfortunately got eaten by technical problems and will have to be redone. The plutocrats don’t have any doubt about what’s on the table this fall: that’s why they’re going to spend a billion dollars or so to elect their homeboy. Nobody on the right is urging people to sit this one out because it doesn’t really matter. Only our side is burdened by this sort of thumb-sucking electoral nihilism, earlier instantiations of which elected Richard Nixon in 1968 and George W. Bush in 1980 2000.

Update And of course there’s the $200 billion in downward income redistribution embodied in Obamacare, which will survive or not largely based on the results of this election.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

18 thoughts on “Voting and inequality”

  1. The idea that elections matter little is particularly inane given the evidence of the last 4 years. Imagine that all else was equal and John McCain was President (say, some late scandal brought down Obama’s candidacy without changing economic fundamentals that have driven global politics since then). We’d have likely taken the UK’s austerity approach from the beginning with respect to public spending, but coupled it with huge tax cuts that’d disproportionately benefit the wealthy. There’s a good chance we’d be at war with Syria and in much tenser situations in Russia/Georgia and Iran. We’d be more heavily involved in Iraq. No healthcare reform. And, as you point out, the courts. These are all huge differences. Imagine if Bush/Gore had gone the other way. Rich folks have an outsized influence on the Democratic party, sure, and this limited the Senate’s ability to pass a lot of Obama’s promised policy during the 111th Congress.

    1. The premise that the GOPT will take the Senate and hold the House has become bedrock “Conventional Wisdom.”

      And yet the cautious Nate Silver rates the House as doable and losing the Senate no better than a toss-up. Note that even he is not tracking races yet and “Conventional Wisdom” has grown up in a near factual vacuum.]

      In part the underlying pundit class assumptions are that the enormous amounts of plutocrat spending on media ads will swamp any incumbent revulsion and that redistricting will lock in the Teahadists.

      Results from real elections have shown a definite, steeply diminishing return on media spending, in a few low turn out cases arguably giving negative results with increased spending.

      Redistricting can improve some districts for the incumbent but the demographics, sift in party ID back to Democrat or independent [the GOTP hysterical screams against every poll that shows this trend is proof of their fears] and the reality that about 50-60 House districts where the GOPT won thin margins in 2010 went for Obama in 2008. A large number of voters from other Republican districts have to moved to shore up the Teahadists. That movement from safe GOPT districts to marginal plus the purge of semi-rational Republican incumbents in the safe districts means seats still counted safe in the absence of polling are much closer.

      The DCCC considers the House in reach. That is their job but they are noticeably more upbeat.

  2. You’re being unfair to Nixon. He was a crook and a monster, he was fundamentally opposed to democracy, and he has the blood of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese on his hand. But strictly on the question of taxation and economic policy, he was (by his own preference or not) very far to the left of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, and inconceivably far to the left of any modern Republican of note. And (willingly or not) he expanded the single-payer healthcare plans Medicare and Medicaid, and (unlike any Republican in the last twenty years) was open to further expansion of healthcare.

    If Nixon’s presidency weren’t overshadowed by his monstrosities, his domestic legacy might leave him standing as the best Democratic President since LBJ (whose legacy has similar issues to Nixon’s), just as Clinton was the best Republican President since Ike (with Obama’s healthcare achievement taking him out of that race)

    1. I think we ought add the EPA to Nixon’s list of domestic achievements. I suspect that Nixon, loathsome as he was in many ways, had a rather stronger grip on America’s economic needs than any subsequent president – and I include the horribly over-rated Clinton in that regard.

      1. Yes. Hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil. Some sort of Hegelian process unfolding no doubt.

        1. I rather think you’ll find that Richard Milhous Nixon isn’t on the ballot, bobbyp. Death is generally a bit of a no-no for candidates.

        2. The lesser of two evils is less evil. The other one being more evil. Makes a bit of a difference.

  3. “Only our side is burdened by this sort of thumb-sucking electoral nihilism”

    Would that be the sort of thumb-sucking that leads to ridiculous moral posturing about the alleged “lies” of Harry Reid?

    1. This is perfect. There’s a question of ends and means here that Prof. Kleiman hasn’t addressed, and I’d like to see him take a crack at it.

      Should I vote for a civil liberties-abusing president who panders in grotesque ways to the wealthy? Prof. Kleiman says I should, and I agree. Should I castigate a Democrat who pursues a highly effective line of attack because of the questionable veracity of that line of attack? Here, Prof. Kleiman and I disagree.

      That said, you’ve got to draw lines somewhere. Prof. Zasloff suggests that he might change his opinion if Reid were straight-out lying. I don’t think I would. If Reid were engaged in something genuinely comparable to McCarthyism – if he were Michele Bachmann attacking Muslims in the federal government – then I’d have a problem with it.

      I’m prepared to defend the places where I draw my lines. I’d be interested to see Prof. K’s defense.

      1. Seconding this. Mark does get rather picky and choosy about what’s ‘fair’.
        Of course, his attitude and snark remain admirably constant 🙂

    2. Re “thumb-sucking electoral nihilism” — now, this is what I call good writing! I also very much enjoyed “freshwater economists.” I am still chuckling about that one days later. Big fun, Mark.

  4. Nobody on the right is urging people to sit this one out because it doesn’t really matter.

    Not in so many words, maybe—but both the values conservatives and the libertarians REALLY dislike Romney, and that’s been pretty clear. (The Tea Party really doesn’t trust Romney; nor does the Reason crowd; nor does the Christian Right. I’m betting that in an election that Republicans ought to win in a walk, Romney does worse than any Republican since Reagan was elected–because so few of the ground troops will work to elect him.)

    1. I think you under-estimate the real motivating force behind the teabaggers and values conservatives – hatred of Obama. That will bring them to the polls and turn them out in force this time around. I don’t see the libertarians mattering either way, frankly.

    2. “I’m betting that in an election that Republicans ought to win in a walk, Romney does worse than any Republican since Reagan was elected–because so few of the ground troops will work to elect him.)”

      From your mouth to God’s ear.

  5. Professor, extending the Bush tax cuts for only earnings under $250,000 will not do anything about income inequality. The biggest tax cut even in that proposal goes to rich people, and the tax rates are a drop in the bucket compared to inequality.

    To actually do something about income inequality, Obama and the Democrats would basically have to embrace some really radical proposals, and their donor base would not be the only obstacle. The best you can say is that if Obamacare turns out to be a health care entitlement, rather than shuttling everyone onto crappy Medicaid or bad private policies that don’t cover everything, that would be a significant step against income inequality, because health care costs and problems drive down the welfare of the poor and middle class. But I can’t think of any other Obama policy that makes a dent.

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