It Has To Be Different This Time

Joe Biden’s proposed Covid-19 relief plan is a big deal. From Vox:

The proposal, called the American Rescue Plan, is divvied up into three buckets:

$400 billion for dealing with the coronavirus, including vaccines and testing;

$1 trillion in direct relief to families; and

$400 billion in aid to communities and businesses.

It includes money for testing, vaccines, and public health workers; $400 a week in extended federal unemployment insurance through September; rental assistance; emergency paid leave; and funding for reopening schools, among other items. And, as Democrats promised when campaigning in Georgia, Biden’s plan would send out another $1,400 in stimulus checks, bringing the total this year to $2,000.

Greg Sargent of The Washington Post discusses the relatively encouraging politics of the matter:

The sheer scale of the economic rescue package that Joe Biden has unveiled has surprised a lot of observers who were expecting the president-elect to offer something more in line with his centrist, incrementalist past.

In unveiling the new [roughly] $1.9 trillion package, Biden declared that rather than worry about “our debt situation,” it’s time to spend big “with interest rates at historic lows.” As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann put it: “I would not have anticipated that Joe Biden would become a clear and forceful advocate of deficit spending.”

What accounts for this ambition? Most obviously, this crisis is truly extraordinary. The new leadership must execute a massive vaccine-distribution operation amid a broader effort to tame a raging pandemic, while securing assistance to struggling Americans plus a big burst of stimulus spending to address a deepening economic crisis.

Another obvious answer is that the politics have shifted. The Democratic Party has moved left on fundamental economic questions, due in large part to advocacy from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others.

But still another reason, one that has been less remarked-upon, is that many Democrats have lived through what happened when former president Barack Obama inherited another major economic crisis from another Republican president.

As has been endlessly hashed out, Obama opted for a stimulus that fell short of what was needed. Putting aside why that happened, what everyone now knows is that it was a serious mistake. Democrats lost the House in 2010 and spent the remainder of Obama’s presidency locked in brutal fiscal trench warfare with a GOP determined to starve the recovery with austerity to cripple his presidency under the guise of fake concerns about spending and deficits.

Many Democrats who lived through that, a lot of whom are still in Congress and some of whom are advising Biden — who himself lived through it as vice president — must be wary of a repeat.

Making them even more wary, one hopes, is the fact that Republican deficit concerns evaporated once a Republican became president. Indeed, the economy was good (at least until the coronavirus shattered it) precisely because it was fueled by stimulus.

As Neil Irwin reports, the Trump years have caused a change among economists, who are now more receptive to a hotter economy — with higher deficits and lower unemployment — and less wary of inflation than they traditionally have been. That has fueled a political shift toward tolerance of deficits, making Democrats less wary of bad-faith criticism for overspending.

But on top of that sea change, Democrats have to be feeling extra-burned by the fact that the GOP pivoted so abruptly from voicing phony deficit concerns under a Democratic president to not caring about them anymore under a Republican.

The lesson of those years is that Txxxx the political beneficiary of that chicanery. He consistently had high approval ratings on the economy, and he might have won reelection on the strength of that if the coronavirus hadn’t intervened.

Democrats appear to be learning from that lesson right now.

On still another front, the makeup of the Senate Democratic caucus is different. During the Obama years you had centrist old-liners chairing key committees . . . Expected to chair those respective committees in the new Senate now are Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sanders, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. All are far more progressive than those previous Democratic chairs. . . .

Wyden, for his part, believes this combination of things — an awareness of getting played by phony GOP deficit concerns and more progressive Senate committee chairs — will make this time very different from 2009 and 2010.

“The key lessons we learned were the importance of not assuming there will be multiple bites at the apple and not taking your foot off the gas in the middle of economic recovery,” Wyden told me in a statement. “We cannot let a popular recovery agenda get derailed by fiscal fearmongering that we know is unjustified and phony.”

“Committee chairs are going to be aggressive, and want to get things done,” Wyden added. “Overall, I think the dynamics have changed a lot since 2009.”

To be sure, it still remains to be seen how big a package Biden will actually wrest from Congress. He has already announced he hopes to pursue bipartisan support in the Senate rather than try to get the legislation passed with a simple majority via the “reconciliation” process.

So it’s still possible that Biden could end up on a futile hunt for Republican support or end up compromising his stimulus package downward. But there is at least some reason for optimism that Democrats have learned from what happened last time. . . .

Fear vs. the White Male Effect

There was a story in the news a little while ago about a Democrat or two fearing that impeaching our criminal president again would cause more division in our beleaguered nation. So I decided to do a small, very unscientific study of a possible difference between Democrats and Republicans. My hypothesis was that Democrats are often said to be afraid of something, while Republicans rarely are. Here are the results (which may be hard to see, so I’ll summarize them below):

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Google came back with 483,000 results for “democrats fear” but only 184,000 results for “republicans fear”. That’s an impressive difference.

To rule out the possibility that Google simply has more results about Democrats, I did another search. I compared “democrats refuse” and “republicans refuse” (simply because Republicans seem to say “no” a lot).

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As you may be able to see, there were equally striking results. There were 86,000 results for “democrats refuse” and 314,000 for “republicans refuse”. 

What does this tell us about the two parties? I’m not sure. Maybe Democrats are more concerned about consequences than Republicans are. They probably worry more. They are certainly more open to compromise, i.e. less likely to refuse. 

This brings me to two relevant articles. The first describes a significant difference between White men and everybody else. It’s called “The Science That Explains Trump’s Grip on White Males”:

Cognitive scientists long ago coined a term for the psychological forces that have given rise to the gendered and racialized political divide that we’re seeing today. That research, and decades of subsequent scholarly work, suggest that if you want to understand the Txxxx phenomenon, you’d do well to first understand the science of risk perception.

[In 1994] a group of researchers . . .  published a study that asked about 1,500 Americans across the country how they perceived different kinds of risks, notably environmental health risks. [They] found that White males differed from White women and non-White men and women in how they perceived risks. For every category of threat, White men saw risk as much smaller and much more acceptable than did other demographic groups. This is what they dubbed “the White male effect”. They also found that White women perceived risks, across the board, to be much higher than White men did, but this was not true of non-White women and men, who perceived risk at pretty much the same levels. . .  Eventually, expansions of this study would include a wide range of risks including handguns, abortionnuclear threat, and capital punishment.

The perception of risk, of course, relates to fear. Where there is no risk, there is nothing to fear. There is scientific evidence, therefore, that Republicans (who tend to be White men) are less fearful than Democrats (who tend to be women and non-White).

The second article is “The Democrats’ Stark, Historic Choice”. The author argues that Democrats need to rise above their fears if we’re going to preserve (what remains of) our democracy:

For all the cant we’ll soon be drowned in about the soul of the nation and healing, the Democratic Party and the country now face what is ultimately a problem of public policy. Today, less than half our population controls 82 percent of the Senate’s seats. By 2040, given current demographic trends, the most conservative third of the country alone will control nearly 70 percent of its seats. All of this amounts to a permanent and growing advantage for a party whose leaders greeted the president with applause at its winter meeting after Wednesday’s attack.

The Democrats will soon have the presidency. They will have the House of Representatives. By the skin on the skin of their teeth, they will have the Senate. They will, in sum, be entering into an alignment of power in Washington that we have every reason to believe is becoming exceptionally rare. And every actor within that trifecta will have a choice to make. Should a party that mounted a crusade against a legitimate election and the democratic process—a party whose rhetoric has killed—continue to accrue structural power? Or should the Democratic Party work to curb it? 

The author goes on to argue that Democrats need to overcome their fear of institutional change and take aggressive advantage of their fragile Congressional majority. The legislative filibuster should be eliminated in order to pass a full restoration of the Voting Rights Act, expand the franchise, grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and reform the Supreme Court.

As always, the Republicans will refuse to accept small-“d” democratic reforms. The Democrats shouldn’t fear doing whatever they can to achieve them.

One Senator Sees the Extreme Danger

You could argue that the Southern states seceding from the union was the most serious attack on American democracy. But the slave states weren’t merely trying to change the way we govern ourselves. They were attacking the United States itself, trying to break it apart. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut is correct when he says: “Right now, the most serious attempt to overthrow our democracy in the history of our of country is underway. Those who are pushing to make Dxxxx Txxxx President, no matter the outcome of the election, are engaged in a treachery against their nation.”

He spoke for 14 minutes on Friday and then later to Greg Sargent of The Washington Post.

Greg Sargent asks a good question:

How many other Democrats have you heard making this case in such stark terms?:

Yes, you regularly hear Democrats claiming that it’s time that Republicans accept that Txxxx lost. Or you hear them slamming Txxxx’s lawsuits as frivolous. Or you hear them suggesting that Republicans are spineless for not standing up to Txxxx, as if they harbor deeply held principles they’d adhere to if only Txxxx’s rage-tweets weren’t so frightening.

But you don’t often hear them saying what Murphy suggested here: that the Republican Party has morphed into a malignant and profoundly dangerous threat to the country and the long-term prospects for our democratic stability.

I followed up with Murphy to ask what prompted this speech.

“I have a very clear sense of the danger this all poses to the republic,” Murphy told me. “If this becomes at all normalized more broadly than it already is, they will steal an election two years from now or four years from now.”

“And then I’m not sure how we keep our democracy together,” Murphy continued.

. . . President-elect Joe Biden’s team — which has adopted the posture that much of what Republicans are doing is just a stunt — wants to reassure the country that the transition is proceeding smoothly, and might not want too much focus on this disruption. But that risks misleading the public about the tenuousness of the moment. . . .

. . . If large swaths of the Republican Party are morphing into a much more cancerous anti-democratic force, one that in some basic sense just isn’t functioning as an actor in a democracy, how should Democrats adapt, and communicate to the public about this? How can they compete in the information wars, given the massive media machine the GOP has at its disposal?

On another front, a much more robust agenda to broaden prosperity and combat inequality and flat wages might defuse some populist anger out there. But given that the prospects for a modest economic rescue package are dim — and given the likelihood of GOP Senate control — that seems like an uphill climb.

Murphy suggested that the starting point might be to “diagnose the problem,” which would require a real reorientation in posture.

“For much of the last four years, we thought the problem was that Republicans knew what the right thing was, but they just didn’t do it because Txxxx was so scary,” Murphy told me. “I think this moment is showing us that there are a whole lot of Republicans who believe this nonsense.”

“This isn’t just a party that’s trying to stay on the good side of an enemy of democracy,” Murphy continued. “This is a party that has a whole bunch of enemies of democracy inside its top ranks. That’s bone-chilling.”

So Crazy, It Might Just Work

Two facts: Democrats need a more compelling message and New York Times editorials are boring. The subject of yesterday’s editorial, however, is interesting and would give the Democrats a more powerful message. It’s called “Let’s Talk About Higher Wages”:

One of the great successes of the Republican Party in recent decades is the relentless propagation of a simple formula for economic growth: tax cuts.

The formula doesn’t work, but that has not affected its popularity. In part, that’s because people like tax cuts. But it’s also because people like economic growth, and while the cult of tax cuts has attracted many critics, it lacks for obvious rivals.

Democratic politicians have tended to campaign on helping people left behind by economic growth, the difficulties caused by economic growth and the problems that cannot be addressed by economic growth. When Democrats do talk about encouraging economic growth, they often sound like Republicans with a few misgivings — the party of kinder, better tax cuts.

This is not just a political problem for Democrats; it is an economic problem for the United States. The nation needs a better story about the drivers of economic growth, to marshal support for better public policies. The painful lessons of recent decades, along with recent economic research, point to a promising candidate: higher wages.

Raising the wages of American workers ought to be the priority of economic policymakers and the measure of economic performance under the Biden administration. We’d all be better off paying less attention to . . . the nation’s gross domestic product and focusing instead on . . . workers’ paychecks.

Set aside, for the moment, the familiar arguments for higher wages: fairness, equality of opportunity, ensuring Americans can provide for their families. The argument here is that higher wages can stoke the sputtering engine of economic growth.

Perhaps the most famous illustration of the benefits is the story of Henry Ford’s decision in 1914 to pay $5 a day to workers on his Model T assembly lines. He did it to increase production — he was paying a premium to maintain a reliable work force. The unexpected benefit was that Ford’s factory workers became Ford customers, too.

The same logic still holds: Consumption drives the American economy, and workers who are paid more can spend more. The rich spend a smaller share of what they earn, and though they lend to the poor, the overall result is still less spending and consumption.

For decades, mainstream economists insisted that it was impossible to order up a sustainable increase in wages because compensation levels reflected the unerring judgment of market forces. “People will get paid on how valuable they are to the enterprise,” [according to] the Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush.

The conventional wisdom held that productivity growth was the only route to higher wages. Through that lens, efforts to negotiate or require higher wages were counterproductive. Minimum-wage laws would raise unemployment because there was only so much money in the wage pool, and if some people got more, others would get none. Collective bargaining similarly was derided as a scheme by some workers to take money from others.

It was in the context of this worldview that it became popular to argue that tax cuts would drive prosperity. Rich people would invest, productivity would increase, wages would rise.

In the real world, things are more complicated. Wages are influenced by a tug of war between employers and workers, and employers have been winning. One clear piece of evidence is the yawning divergence between productivity growth and wage growth since roughly 1970. Productivity has more than doubled; wages have lagged far behind. . . .

The importance of rewriting our stories about the way the economy works is that they frame our policy debates. Our beliefs about economics determine what seems viable and worthwhile — and whether new ideas can muster support.

Preaching the value of higher wages is a necessary first step toward concrete changes in public policy that can begin to shift economic power. It can help to build support for increasing the federal minimum wage — a policy that already has proved popular at the state level, including in conservative states like Arkansas, Florida and Missouri, where voters in recent years have approved higher minimum wages in referendums.

A focus on higher wages is not a sufficient goal for economic policy. . . .

But a focus on wage growth would provide a useful organizing principle for public policy — and an antidote to the attractive simplicity of the belief in the magical power of tax cuts. . . .

That won’t be easy. The affluent live in growing isolation from other Americans, which makes it harder for them to imagine themselves as members of a broader community. Their companies derive a growing share of profits from other countries, which makes it easier to ignore the welfare of American consumers. The nation’s laws, social norms and patterns of daily life all have been revised in recent decades to facilitate the suppression of wage growth.

But we can begin by telling better stories about the way the economy works.

Unquote.

If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation it would be around $12 today, instead of $7.25  If it had kept up with productivity, it would be more than $24. So it makes sense that Democratic politicians want to raise the minimum wage. Although doing so would indirectly raise the wages of better-paid workers, Democrats rarely, if ever, emphasize that fact. 

There are other ways for national and local government to help wages rise, such as paying government workers more, requiring higher wages in government contracts, making government subsidies contingent on higher wages, reducing Social Security and Medicare taxes for lower-paid workers (while raising them for the very well-paid) and making it easier to form and sustain unions. The Times editorial is saying that Democrats should make higher wages — higher take-home pay — an overarching message. That would convince more of the working class to stop electing Republicans and vote in their economic interest.

Hoping for the Best & Getting the Worst

David Roberts is a writer for Vox who I don’t follow on Twitter anymore (he’s @drvox, but not a doctor). I don’t follow him because he’s so good at pointing out how bad things are. But somebody linked to what he posted today:

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Among the many reasons this is horseshit, this whole genre of liberal-scolding rests on the premise that the offended heartlanders are responding to what Democrats actually say — the intramural debates in which people like (NY Times columnist Maureen) Dowd are involved. They’re not! 

By & large, Txxxx’s base has no idea what Dems actually say or do. They are responding to a ludicrous caricature they see on (Right Wing) media & RW social media. They are responding to lies & conspiracy theories. Dems changing how they talk *won’t change any of that*. 

It’s very weird how America’s elite journalists/pundits/etc. wring their hands over “post-truth politics” & the problem of misinformation, but then turn around & treat the things voters do as a direct response to Dem “messaging.” Voters rarely HEAR Dem messaging. Because — stop me if you’ve heard me say this a trillion times — the RW has a giant propaganda machine that carries their messages directly to the ears (& id) of their voters. Dems lob messages out into the (Main Stream Media) & hope for the best.

Unquote.

He could have added “& often get the worst”.