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Written with good hearts, but timid minds
on July 14, 2012
I'm generally a Republican voter, but I've always thought well of James Carville. His heart is clearly in the right place. He wants an America where education and job opportunities are abundant such that everyone can advance to the limit of their ability as he did --- starting out as a poor kid in Louisiana and then achieving success commensurate with talent and ability. He's ferociously partisan, but in a good humored and good natured way. He's married to Republican strategist Mary Matalin, so he hears plenty of Republican input and is a popular guest on Conservative shows. He's thus the kind of political strategist who should be taken seriously by both parties.
I don't know anything about Carville's coauthor Stan Greenberg other than to say that he expresses his own ideas, which are pretty much in synch with Carville's, with clarity. Their conversational give-and-take succeeds in getting their points across in an interesting way.
The first third of this book, like so many others of its genre, is a spot-on description of the anxieties of the middle class:
The middle class is struggling today because of declining wages, reduced benefits, and crushing costs for the essentials of life. It is the three decades of income squeeze that now drives middle-class identity. They are being screwed because the country's losing ground, not because they think some other group is screwing them-- unless it's the 1 percent. But we'll get to that.
Carville and Greenberg nail that down point by point: Employment security is a thing of the past. People have become insecure in retirement because defined-benefit pensions are largely extinct. Young people, after racking up mountains of college debt, find employment scarce and low paying. Many other recent authors have said these things, but Carville and Greenberg communicate them from the soul: much of the Middle Class is hanging on by its fingernails, fearful that they and their children might never again see real prosperity. Carville also points out that the Great Recession was the coup-de-grace of an economic illness that had been debilitating the Middle Class for many years prior:
When the financial crisis struck in 2008, it had the effect of hitting somebody suffering from pneumonia with a pickup truck.
Having described the debilitation of the middle class so eloquently, Carville and Greenberg then get down to the business of how to restore its fortunes. Like most mainstream Democrats, their ideas boil down to stimulating the economy by spending more public money on infrastructure and education.
Third, let's talk about the word "spending." When we hear that word, we see images of bridges and roads, high-speed rail, a smart grid of green energy, eager pupils in new school buildings and a teacher still teaching there. We see fast and universal broadband reaching into rural areas, a woman gaining access to new health benefits or a senior not having to pay more for health care bills. It is exhilarating just thinking about it, and we wonder why these voters don't have the same epiphany. Their minds must be polluted by Fox News and manipulative politicians.
Voters see this not as an "epiphany" but a pipe-dream. Environmental red-tape, mainly created by Democrat constituencies, has consistently blocked new infrastructure. New highways to relieve traffic congestion at Interstate chokepoints like Atlanta have been blocked in court for more than forty years. High speed rail doesn't fare much better. At current rates of environmental approval, funding, and construction it would take 500 years to build a high-speed rail link from New York to L.A. and the cost per passenger ticket to fund the project would be $25,000 a seat. Carville talks about "building airports" but we have 3,000 counties in the USA, and is there any one of them that doesn't already have an airport? Likewise, it's hard to believe that spending public money to run "broadband" into the 3% of the people who live in rural areas is going to provide any substantive economic benefit. As to Green Energy, it may already be past its peak as governments around the world have begun to stop subsidizing it with public money.
I think Democrats keep harping back to "infrastructure" because they remember that spending public money to build roads, dams, bridges, airports, and rural electrification and rural schoolhouses were key parts of FDR's New Deal public works. That made sense in 1933 when we were short of all those things, but today is not 1933. We aren't going to build a new Interstate highway system and a new Hoover Dam when we already have them, even if the environmentalists allowed for it. Moreover, modern infrastructure projects don't soak up massive amounts of unemployed labor like they did 80 years ago. In 1933 a road construction crew was 5,000 laborers spreading gravel with shovels. Today it's 50 laborers and a bulldozer.
These projects also don't put back to work the millions of accountants, computer programmers, and industrial engineers who are unemployed because their jobs were outsourced to China. Likewise, building a bullet train isn't going to do anything to help the unemployed who can't afford to buy the ticket to ride it. Most voters don't favor these budget-busting programs because they perceive them to be boondoggles that won't help THEIR unemployment situation, not because "their minds must be polluted by Fox News and manipulative politicians." These voters may sense that Democrats have their minds focused on the programs they implemented during the last Great Depression 80 years ago, and not on what we need to do to pull out of the current one.
Carville and Greenberg also make the usual Democrat spin that vastly increasing spending on education will prove to be an economic panacea. They wrap this idea in political propaganda by alleging that the Republicans are intentionally dumbing-down the public by waging an "attack on education." This is just plain silly for all kinds of reasons, not least because education spending has soared exponentially for decades in both Republican and Democratic administrations. There have been some cutbacks recently, but only because of the crippling loss of tax revenues that have afflicted states and cities during these recessionary times.
Carville and Greenberg acknowledge that the public isn't buying their nostrums. They explain the 2010 shellacking thusly:
Democrats got a lot wrong. First, voters were frustrated by the lack of progress on unemployment and the seeming ineffectiveness of the president's policies....But what really angered them was the perplexing and sustained lack of focus on economic issues as people themselves struggled to survive the "Great Recession." While voters were looking for FDR-like passion for moving the economy forward, the Democrats and the president focused on it only sporadically. People were desperately listening but heard no economic vision or story showing where the president and the Democrats wanted to take the country. And despite the great hope for change after 2008, people could not see that anybody was battling for the middle class and American jobs; yet for Wall Street and the lobbyists, it was business as usual.
This is an indirect way of saying, "Most people perceive Obama to be every bit as much in bed with the corporate and banking interests as any Republican would have been. What, really, is the difference between a Republican Hank Paulson and a Democrat Tim Geithner? They are both equally tools of the big banking interests that have wrecked the economy."
My advice (for whatever it may be worth coming from a Republican) is: Quit crying in your beer about how the Republicans are out-spending and out-Foxing you. IMO the only way you're going to beat the Republicans at the polls is to defeat their ideology:
* You've got to get over the idea that free trade is beneficial to the national economy in all circumstances. It is insane to allow an American company to put its American workers out of their jobs in order to open up an overseas subsidiary to make products with peon labor for export back into the United States. Products made in this manner should be denied entry into our market. It is also crazy for us to be buying items from overseas that we can easily make here. It is economically harmful to allow American companies to put their tech workers out of jobs because someone in the third world will do the work for peon wages. We need to compile a list of goods and services strategic to our economy and forbid their importation.
* You've got to defeat the Republican argument that raising the minimum wage "destroys jobs." You must point out that raising the minimum wage CREATES jobs by putting more money in worker's pockets, thereby allowing them to buy more goods and services. Raising the minimum wage increases DEMAND, which is the key to creating jobs.
* You've got to be willing to draft laws requiring companies pay the full costs of the unemployment they create. When companies engage in mass layoffs to inflate their profits by shifting work overseas, they undermine the entire economy. Not only is wage income lost, but federal, state, and local tax revenue is eliminated with it. Perhaps companies should be fined 10 years of lost tax revenue for every American job they send overseas. You've also got to forbid American companies from pretending that their employees are "contractors" who can be cheated out of their promised pensions and benefits.
* You've got to defeat the Republican argument that raising the income tax on high-earners harms the economy by choking off investment. The problem now is that we have too much investment and too little demand. How many more factories do we need to build when there's not enough consumer demand to keep the ones we already have in business? You've got to make the point that increasing taxes on the high-rollers is entirely appropriate. Why does a corporate raider or bank executive who thinks it's his or her business to lay people off or squander customers' money on reckless speculations need a pay raise from $50 million a year to $100 million? Impose a 70% income tax on all income over five million to discourage these 1% from looting the assets that the 99% built.
* You must restore sanity to the financial markets by intensively regulating the financial industry. The stock market is supposed to be a vehicle whereby the middle class can accumulate wealth by gradual increases in stock value over the decades. It shouldn't be the playground for investment banks and hedge funds that scam all the profits out the market with insider trading, "dark pools," and high frequency trading. Until the speculative frenzy is purged from the capital markets by force of law, they will continue to be vehicles for the DESTRUCTION of middle class wealth instead of its creation.
These are the kinds of BOLD actions that the angry middle class expects from Democrats. Forget the talking points about grandiose government-owned infrastructure that is never going to be built due to environmental red tape and lack of funding. Just get down to the business of putting money back in the middle class's pockets directly by restoring the value of their labor with a reasonable minimum wage. Get to work passing the laws that will force corporate employers to respect their workers' jobs. Give the middle class a solid footing to stand on, and they'll gladly do the work of restoring their fortunes. If you continue with the tired old "run up the public debt on education and infrastructure" talking points you might as well roll out the red carpet for President Mitt Romney and a Republican supermajority in the next Congress.