Blog #20 – The Debates – Principles or Details?


Blog #20 – The Debates: Principles or Details?

Instead of clichés that are remarkably similar on both sides (who doesn’t love the middle class, or promise to reduce the deficit?), how about going back to basics? Sometimes the devil is in the principles.

1. The role of government: Government is not “them,” as in “keep their hands out of our pockets”), it’s “us.” In a democracy, it’s what we are collectively, not what strange entity is. It’s the “we the people” of the constitution. Whether it’s “big” or “little” isn’t the point; the point is, case by case, should we do it together, or should we do it separately.

What should government do? Is it what we do collectively together because no one person can individually pay for its being done, it can’t efficiently be done for just one person, or you can’t do it for some and not for others. Is it ensure the provisions of what economists speak of as “public goods,” or “collective consumption,” of items such as fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems, or, locally, police and fire protection, street lighting.

Or is it what are called merit goods: goods (or services) which everyone is better off if everyone has them, such as inoculations against contagious diseases, a good education, a healthy diet, prohibitions against racism, where everyone is better off if more have them?

And if not these things, then what? A basic question.

2. Caring for others: Do we only care for others if they live up to our standards of conduct, so we ourselves will be more secure, or to teach those we don’t help a lesson? Is inequality only bad because it interferes with growth; would we still care about injustice to others if it improved growth? Should we only care for others if we can do so without raising taxes?

Or is our society rich enough so that we can afford to help all those who need help, because all are human beings and “created equal,” regardless of the source of their need?

And if not, where do we draw the line? Another basic question

3. Is winning all? Is the most important purpose of the current election campaign to defeat the other side, as Mitch McConnell explicitly said, and must therefore every speech, every debate answer, every platform paragraph, be written to first serve that most important goal?
Is the holding of a quadrennial election under today’s conditions the single most important definition of our democracy, and should its results pre-empt all further discussion or action to affect policy??

Or is the ultimate purpose of democracy to advance a higher goal, to implement more fully the inalienable right of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with elections every four years being simply one means to that end, others including popular education, illumination of public issues, influencing government policy through other democratic means, pressing the arguments for fundamental principles?

4. The federal deficit: Is reducing the federal deficit a holy grail, so that all budgetary decisions, as to both revenues and expenditures, must be subordinated to it, whether they harm the most vulnerable or the best off, whether they reduce or expand production of goods and services, whether they add to or subtract from security, personal and/or national?

Or are promises to reduce the deficit meaningless, avoiding the real issues, unless they specify what will be cut and/ what taxed and for whom?

Sometimes the devil is indeed in the details.

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Blog #19 – The Useless 47%


Blog#19 – The Useless 47% -Useless to the 1%

Mitt Romney has added a brutal reality to traditional class analysis: The Useless Class. It is simply defined: those from whose existence the 1% cannot extract a profit. Its definition reveals a telling economic analysis, although it was used at a political fund raiser.

Politically, it makes no sense at all. If 47% of the people are committed to vote for Obama, he only needs 4% from among the other 53% to win the election, and Romney is a sure loser.

But economically the 47% makes a lot of sense. It is astonishingly revealing, not of his political strategy but profoundly of his economic class interest and loyalties.

There are several ways of interpreting Romney’s 47% comment: as part of a political strategy, or as part of an honest economic analysis.

Or as a matter of personal jealousy: If Romney thinks not paying taxes is such a bad thing, why has he tried so hard all his career to do exactly that? Would he like to be part of the 47% himself, if he only could?

More seriously, politically, look at who the 47% are, and who the 1% are, and judge who is more deserving of public support:

47% 1%
The elderly Hedge fund managers
Children Managers
The disabled Corporate CEO’s
The working poor, earning too little for tax liability Real estate developers, owners, and speculators
Members of the armed services The inheritors of wealth
The unemployed
The sick

The 47% analysis makes no sense politically. In the first place, one can throw out the whole idea that you can predict a political vote of people by simply knowing what their income is and whether they pay income taxes: 40% of those with incomes under $30,000 voted Republican in 2010, 36% of those with incomes over $200,000 voted Democratic. And among those who do not pay income taxes are at least 4,000 households with incomes over $1 million ended up with zero federal income tax liability in 2011. Another 14,000 made between $500,000 and $1 million.

And in the second place, If Romney thinks 47% of the people would vote for Obama no matter what, as pointed out above, Obama is a sure winner: 47% vs. 1%.

But, looked at in economic terms, perhaps Romney has unintentionally opened to door to what might be a serious discussion of the divisions in U.S. society, and the implications of those divisions for the holding of power and the shaping of policy.

What are those relevant divisions? Let us look at it from Mitt Romney’s point of view, assuming, without moralizing, that he is rationally concerned with protecting and enhancing the position of the 1% to whom he unquestionably belongs personally, and wishes to lay out those groups on which he can count for support, those that might have the power or the position to challenge his interests, and those that, whatever their actual interests may be, have no power to make a difference him.

Mitt’s 47% category is one place to start. It includes two broad categories: those out of the labor market entirely, and those whose position in it is marginal and at a subsistence level of poverty but working. The former would include most of the elderly, the disabled, and children. They are, for essentially physical reasons, unable to support themselves in the market, and are necessarily dependent on society to survive. That means, in an economic system distributing key goods along market principles, they are dependent on government. They have no economic power that would disturb Romney. The only power they might have of concern to him would be political, through the electoral process, or possibly through disruption on the streets. Their number, in demographic terms is growing, but because they are limited in their physical opportunities. Unlikely to pose a threat. Even politically, their issues are often overwhelming enough to preclude an active participation in public life.

From Romney’s point of view, what are the crucial dividing lines between the 47% and the 1% to which he belongs?

I suggest four overlapping categories:

Their material position: poor, working, professisonal/managerial/1%;
The ease/difficulty of their organizing
Their position in Consumption
Their position in Production

What does make sense, then, rather than using the 47% for a political analysis, is to look at it as a negative definition of his real constituency, his class, useful in a fund-raising appeal among the 1% to reassure them that he knows where their best interests lie, and will serve them. The 47% are useless for profit-making in production in the economy. They do not work in a fashion that permits their direct exploitation, producing goods or services from whose disposition the 1% can benefit in classic economic terms, they cannot be exploited because their labor does not produce the surplus value that the 1% can capture for their own benefit. They are not in a position to disrupt the system, in part because they are only with difficulty organized. Their economic role is on the Consumption side of the economy.

One can phrase that in Keynesian terms that perhaps make the same point in different fashion, and reveal a contradiction that might in fact bother Romney some. If 47% of the population are poor, have so little income that they pay no income taxes, who will buy what is produced by the other 53%, from production on which the 1% depend for their profits? Writing of 47% of the population as profit-producing consumers is a problem, one that keeps Romney from saying what he really means, that he does not care at all about them. Even if they do not buy much, they do consume, and profit is still to be made from their consumption, even if it to be fueled by government benefits, such as social security, food stamps, or Medicaid and Medicare. So the 1% cannot afford to cut such programs off entirely—never mind the social disruption that might occur.

Yet, of course, those public benefits must be paid for, and necessarily by taxes. Yet if one has a progressive tax rate, the result is that the 1% are making their profits by recycling their own tax money; hardly desirable, from their point of view. Thus, rather than tackling those benefits directly, holding them down, and shifting the tax burden of paying for them from themselves to the “middle class,” is the preferred strategy. Hence a targeted austerity, with a continuing tolerance for some public benefits, in a sleight of hand which the middle class ta party adherents quite properly object to because it is at their expense.

This is perhaps a slightly different formulation of the Keynsian crisis of under consumption. With only the possibility for the 1% of extracting profit form 52% of the population, the possibilities of profit are reduced significantly, and drive the 1% to increasingly extreme means of accumulating wealth, producing a crisis when the 1% finds their source of nourishment is essentially gained by eating their own tail, relying on the tax revenues they themselves are contributing to.

Romney’s 47% comments are not a political analysis of his chances in the election; they rather lay out clearly the reason the 1% should support him as one understanding their own class interests.

But the 47% discloses an interesting difficulty for the 1%. If businesses make their profits by selling what they produce, Keynes and common logic would suggest they need buyers who have the money to with which to buy what is being sold. And if 47% have too little money, there is trouble. So supplementing their incomes with government support can help, and thus contribute to profit. But government support contributes to the deficit, runs counter to austerity, and increases taxes, if even only slightly. So those within the 1% who can profit even from the consumption of the 47% have an interest in conflict with those who cannot thus profit.

The health care debate is an example. Government support for health care for the poor is a loser for the 1%, who are not at all poor; the 1% oppose ObamaCare. But within the 1%, the insurance provisions of ObamaCare help the market for insurance, and thus enhance insurance companies’ profits, and those that will thus benefit supported it. A dilemma for Romney, and, if the poor are growing, as the 47% figure and other data suggest, a growing dilemma.

For Romney, what is consumed must be provided in the market, and must produce profit. Fine; the insurance companies covering health care have taken note. But a further problem arises. Consumption is increasingly of services, on top of the provision of goods. From tourism to security to design to retail to transportation to education to fire protection to social work, what people consume is more and more what other people provide directly for them, not just in the physical goods they buy. And a growing part (“collective consumption”), is provided collectively by government. But services must be privately provided to maintain business profits. And thus the increasing pressure or privatization of public services: education, hospital care, buses and railroads, private security, even private military. For the 1%, privatization is a matter of expanding the potential for profit, whatever its relation to efficiency.

Wait till someone with a tape recorder catches Paul Ryan at a fat cat fund-raiser boasting about the real advantages of vouchers…