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Brad DeLong asks Is American Democracy Broken?

12 May 2012

Summary:  Please read this in full.  Although it opens slowly, Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) gains power as he goes.  In summary, it’s brilliant description of the decay of the American political system.

Is American Democracy Broken?
by Brad DeLong (Professor of Economics, Berkeley), 3 May 2012 — Excerpt:

I am here somewhat under false pretences. I am not a political scientist.  I am an economist.  And, with this topic, I feel myself outside my comfort zone.

What I have to say is made up of two parts: The first part is an economist’s not theories or analyses but rather prejudices about how modern democracy should work. The second part is my reflection on both my experience of serving as a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury for economic policy in the Clinton administration and from watching as my friends went to Washington in the Obama administration, in what seemed to me to be at times a bizarre surrealistic remix of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.

An economist is going to start thinking about democracy with Tony Downs’s economic theory of same. First-past-the-post electoral systems and office-seeking politicians should produce a two-party system. Office-seeking candidates simply won’t join any third party because their chances of election will be too small. Only those who want to make some ideological or demonstrative point rather than to actually win office and then make policy — cough, Ralph Nader, cough — will do so. Hence the stable configuration has two parties. And then the two parties hug the center and follow policies attractive to the median voter.

Ideology will matter — politicians do not run purely for love of office but rather to then make the country into what they regard as a better place. There will be swings to the left, to the right, to the up, to the down, to the forward, to the back. But the policy views of the median voter ought, according to Tony Downs, function as a strong attractor and we should not expect the policies implemented by the politicians who get elected to deviate far from them.


.

Now there are qualifications. It is the median voter, not the median citizen.George W. Bush became president not because his policies came closer to the preferences of the median person who voted on that Tuesday in November but because his policies came closer to the preferences of the median Supreme Court justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor. Gerrymandering and misapportionment — cough, the Senate, cough — matter a lot. But these are qualifications. Tony Downs made a very strong case that first-past-the-post electoral systems will produce policies that the median voter likes. Thus in this sense the electorate gets the government it deserves. If there are problems, the problems are in the minds of the voters rather than in the Democratic system.

That is the economist’s not theory, not analysis, but rather prejudice. theory. Political scientists will scorn it as hopelessly naïve. But it is the benchmark from which I start.

Now let me shift and talk about our experience here in America since I got to Washington in early 1993, carrying spears for Alicia Munnell in Lloyd Benson’s Treasury Department in the Clinton administration. … We in the Bentsen Treasury at the start of 1993 looked forward to doing an awful lot of technocratic work–cranking out centrist legislation approved by large bipartisan majorities.

We found Republicans cooperative on NAFTA. We found Republicans pushing for welfare reform — but only to the extent of passing things that were so highly punitive that they could not believe any Democratic president could in good conscience sign them. But Clinton fooled them. He signed welfare reform – -and then spent some time in 1996 campaigning on the message: “re-elect me because only I can undo some of the damage that I have done to the welfare system”. Which was true. And which he did.

Otherwise the Republicans when I got to Washington at the start of 1993 decided that they were going to adopt the Gingridge strategy: oppose everything the Democratic president proposes, especially if it had previously been a Republican proposal and priority. That is not a strategy that would ever be adopted by anybody who wants to see their name written in the Book of Life.

But Gingrich found followers. Bob Dole decided he would rather join Gingrich to try to portray Clinton as a failure. So Bob Dole never got a legislative accomplishment out of his years in Congress. Instead, he got to lose a presidential election. … As my friend Mark Schmitt wrote in his review of Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book about the moderate Republicans, Rule and Ruin, the moderate Republicans were partisan Republicans first and Americans second.

Then came Obama in 2009 and 2010. My friends–Christina Romer, Lawrence Summers, Peter Orszag, and company–headed off to Washington to plan a Recovery Act that they thought would get 25 Republican votes in the Senate. It was a squarely bipartisan fiscal stimulus: this tax cut to make the Republicans stand up and applaud, this infrastructure increase to make the Democrats applaud, this increase in aid to the states to make the governors and state legislators applaud. It didn’t get 25 Republican votes in the Senate. It got 3.

On healthcare reform, Barrack Obama’s opening bid was the highly-Republican Heritage Foundation plan, the plan that George Romney had chosen for Massachusetts. RomneyCare got zero republican votes.

On budget balance Obama’s proposals have not been the one-to-one equal amounts of tax increases and spending cuts to balance the budget of Clinton 1993 or Bush 1990. Obama’s proposals have been more along the lines of $1 of tax increases for every $5 of spending cuts. And the Republicans rejected them.

Controlling global warming?  Doing something to deal something to deal with our increasingly unequal and outsized income distribution? Strengthening financial regulation so that things like the 2008-9 financial crisis do not happen again? No republican votes for any proposals on any of these issue areas under any circumstances, not even when the proposals Obama makes were baked in republican think tanks even five years ago.

What’s going on? I look around and I see a number of things:

  • I see a press core that is unconcerned with policy substance and the future of America and devotes itself to calling politics like a basketball game …
  • An electorate that in my fears appears to want to be led by a strong or a competent leader …
  • … everybody below the top 5% of the American income distribution today is not living any better than their predecessors did a generation ago. … For the top 5% things are better. For the rest of us, it looks as though they are not.
  • Right now, for every 13 workers in America, we have one person who would be working in normal times — who was working back in 2007 — and who now is not working. … At the moment more people still think that this is George W. Bush’s fault than think that it is Barack Obama’s. But everyone agrees it is the governments fault somehow — although they are not sure how.

Is this broken democracy? Does our politics still work? I am just an economist. …

Comments posted about this at DeLong’s website

Omega Centauri (link here):

I think Joe comes closest to the prime cause. A democracy requires a well informed and clear thinking citizenry. We don’t have this anymore. Perhaps we never had it, but at least the sophistication of well funded agents with an agenda was low enough to have limited success.

Now we have very well endowed political agencies -mistakingly called think tanks. They use the latest cognitive and marketing science to design programs to move the citizenry in the direction choosen by their billionaire founders. The money is so great, and the damage that can be done to one’s reputation if these forces decide that your reputation needs to be destroyed, that the media is cowed into largely telling the stories that these well endowed organizations have.

On top of that, the information transmission business, has discoverd its really an entertainment business, and all the attributes of successful story telling (drama, emotion, avoidance of analysis) come into play. So now its largely become a matter of a few well endowed institutions, who were endowed by crotchety aging billionaires to push the political center as far as possible in the direction the founders favored, pushing the Overton window as hard as possible.

Dave (link here)

… Rather than view our political system as representing a set of classes, people have come to view it as representing a set of values. No matter which set of values a person agrees with, the parties that claim to support those values both support crony capitalism and increased oppression of workers. If a person doesn’t believe in handouts, they’ll vote against handouts for themselves, but because they don’t understand what a corporate handout is, they’ll also vote FOR corporate handouts. Their values don’t align with the reality of the outcome because they don’t understand the effects beyond their own class.

They’ll tell you they don’t like handouts, but they support handouts to the rich with glee. They don’t think they do, but they don’t understand it. They have been brainwashed into believing that the rich wouldn’t be where they are unless they worked really, really hard. This is mostly not true.

Bloix (link here)

American democracy has never “worked” in the sense of providing an elected government that accurately reflects the either the actual or perceived interests of a majority of Americans. The Constitution was never intended to that, and it has never managed to do it by accident.

American democracy has “worked” spectacularly well in the sense of providing a stable, self-perpetuating governmental structure that has overseen a growth in geographical size, population, wealth, innovation, and personal freedom unparalleled in the history of the world in a nation of equivalent size – and also in creating the world’s largest and most powerful informal empire.

What we are seeing now is the failure of American democracy to “work” in the second sense. This is the third such failure in our history. The first resulted in the Civil War; the second led to a massive change in the structure and powers of the national government in the New Deal; what will happen this time is anyone’s guess.

For more information about conservatives and the Republican Party

  1. Let’s play “Name that Liberal”
  2. Let’s play round 2 of “Name That Liberal”
  3. Let’s play round 3 of “Name That Liberal”
  4. Republicans have found a sure-fire path to victory in the November elections, 5 February 2010
  5. Whose values do Dick and Liz Cheney share? Those of America? Or those of our enemies, in the past and today?, 14 March 2010
  6. The evolution of the Republican Party has shaped America during the past fifty years, 8 May 2010
  7. Two contrasting views of the Republican Party, 23 May 2010
  8. Will people on the right help cut Federal spending?, 19 June 2010
  9. Conservatives oppose the new START treaty, as they opposed even the earlier version negotiated by Ronald Reagan, 24 July 2010
  10. The Republicans are serious about the budget. The results could be ugly., 24 November 2010
  11. Why do Rep Ryan and the Republicans want to gut America’s military defenses?, 14 April 2011
  12. Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
  13. Mitt Romney and the Empire of Hubris.  Setting America on a path to decline., 10 October 2011
  14. Why Republicans Need Remedial Math: Their Budget Plans Explode the Deficit, 16 March 2012
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27 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 May 2012 2:08 am

    Oh my goodness. Here is another leading American intellectual, speaks of his good friends Romer, Orzag and Summers, offers he is only an economist and wonders if Democracy is dead in America!? Repubs are bad (ya think?) and Dems are…??? Man are we in trouble but this is news?

    “clueless in Berkeley”
    Somebody get him a Netflix subscription.

    Breton

  2. Thomas Moore permalink
    12 May 2012 2:15 am

    DeLong’s article doesn’t strike me as “brilliant.” It’s an accurate rational-choice theory analysis of politics from an economist — but history shows that the rational choice theory has been conclusively disproved. People don’t decide their course of action based on marginal utility. When secretaries at the RAND corporation were tested in the 1950s to see if they reacted to the Prisoner’s Dilemmas as John Nash’s game theory equilibrium math predicted, the result was that the secretaries systematically violated all the precepts of game theory and chose to split the difference of the offered money rather than betray one another.

    See the article “Irrational exuberance: Irrational Exuberance: When did political science forget about politics?” by Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic, 25 October 1999, for a detailed overview of the disastrous rise of rationa choice theory in political science and its utter failure to deal with observed reality.

    A much better guide to politics and the behavior of a democracy (as opposed to the failed rational choice school) would be a book like Charles McKay’s Extraordinary Population Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1847) — or Gustave LeBon’s The Crowd (1897):

    “When studying the fundamental characteristics of a crowd we stated that it is guided almost exclusively by unconscious motives. Its acts are far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain. In this respect a crowd is closely akin to quite primitive beings. (..) A crowd is at the mercy of all external exciting causes, and reflects their incessant variations. It is the slave of the impulses which it receives. (..) …[T]he isolated individual possesses the capacity of dominating his reflex actions, while a crowd is devoid of this capacity.

    “The varying impulses to which crowds obey may be, according to their exciting causes, generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly, but they will always be so imperious that the interest of the individual, even the interest of self-preservation, will not dominate them. (..) This explains how it is that we see them pass in a moment from the most bloodthirsty ferocity to the most extreme generosity and heroism. A crowd may easily enact the part of an executioner, but not less easily that of a martyr. It is crowds that have furnished the torrents of blood requisite for the triumph of every belief.

    … “The convictions of crowds assume those characteristics of blind submission, fierce intolerance, and the need of violent propaganda which are inherent in the religious sentiment, and it is for this reason that it may be said that all their beliefs have a religious form. The hero acclaimed by a crowd is a veritable god for that crowd. Napoleon was such a god for fifteen years, and a divinity never had more fervent worshippers or sent men to their death with greater ease. The Christian and Pagan Gods never exercised a more absolute empire over the minds that had fallen under their sway.”

    Moreover, DeLong himself admits that his rational analysis of human behavior has failed. “DeLong smackdown watch: John Emerson edition“, Brad deLong blog, 11 May 2012:

    “It seemed to me that economics had a powerful technocratic core and a powerful set of analytical tools that helped to make sense of the world. But the treatment that the world has gotten from the Lucases, Cochranes, Famas, Kocherlakotas, and many others, not to mention the Prescotts–none of whom seems to have made any effort to mark their prejudices to reality–has shaken my confidence to the core.”

    Paul Krugman makes the same admission about the futility of rational analysis of the political behavior of people in a democracy:

    “A bit of meta on my “debate” with Ron Paul; I think it’s a perfect illustration of a point I’ve thought about a lot, the uselessness of face-to-face debates. Source: “On the Uselessness Of Debate,” Paul Krugman op-ed, The New York Times, 1 May 2012:

    “Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there’s no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said “Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!” — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down; I don’t think my supporters are quite the same, but opinions may differ.

    “Tales of historical debates in which one side supposedly won big — like the Huxley-Wilberforce debate on evolution — are, in general, after-the-fact storytelling; the reality is that that kind of smackdown, like Perry Mason-type confessions in court, almost never happens.”

    • Bluestocking permalink
      12 May 2012 6:41 am

      It would be interesting to see what the results from Flood’s experiment with the secretaries at the RAND Corporation (who’d probably be called “administrative assistants” now) would respond if it were conducted today. My guess is that you’d see very different results. Call me a cynic if you must — I won’t dispute the label (although I prefer “disillusioned idealist”, which I consider to be the same thing) — but our culture seems to have become far less community-oriented and far more narcissistic in the past few decades with the result that I’m inclined to predict the person with greater advantage would be more inclined than in years gone by to exploit that advantage even though she knew it would come at her friend’s expense.

      Actually, come to think of it, that’s probably one of the biggest reasons why we’re in the mess we are now…because a significant percentage of the voters no longer have the ability or the inclination to care or even think about what the potential consequences of their choices are likely to be. One obvious example of this is all the pearl clutching which has been going on over the deficit since Obama was elected as if it had suddenly sprung out of the woodwork at us without any warning in January of 2009…despite the fact that when Bush was still in office, hardly any of the same people now clutching their pearls made so much as a peep of protest about spending the level of spending.

      Many of these same people were, in fact, cheering from the sidelines and launching vehement attacks against anyone who dared to question Bush as someone who “doesn’t love America” or “doesn’t support the troops” — and even Cheney himself said “deficits don’t matter” (the silent subtext being “at least as long as we’re the ones creating them.”) As Omega Centauri pointed out in the letter above, a lot of Americans — both the voters and the people who are supposed to keep them informed — have decided to kick their original responsibilities upstairs. Voters let the media tell them what to think and who to vote for, the media lets the corporations and the think tanks decide what they should tell the voters, and the corporations and think tanks take their marching orders from the billionaire investors who are (in many instances) more than happy to turn the situation to their greatest advantage.

    • 12 May 2012 3:19 pm

      A note about Bluestocking comment: Flood’s experiments led to formulation of the “prisoners’ dilemna.”

      See Merrill M. Flood, “Some Experimental Games“, Management Science, 5 (1958), 5-26.

      This paper reports the results of 6 experiments and analyses performed to explore the applicability of the non-constant-sum case of the theories of von Neumann-Morgenstern, and others, to the actual behavior of people playing games or involved in bargaining situations. The paper suggests directions in which the theory of games might be modified and extended to improve its applicability and usefulness.

      A “split-the-difference principle” is suggested to augment the usual theory, so as to specify the exact amount of payments to be made in an ordinary two-person bargaining situation such as the sale of a used car. The application of this principle seems satisfactory in the experiments. One experiment suggests that, in a sequence of trials in the same game situation, people tend to start near an equilibrium point and then try to find a better equilibrium, if there is one. The experiments show examples of non-optimal behavior of the bargainers when the judgment necessary to estimate the relevant payoff is obscure. A fair division of five parcels of objects among five players when each player attaches different values to the parcels is outlined and computed, and the effect of coalitions is discussed.

    • Matt D. permalink
      12 May 2012 2:28 pm

      Thomas: First, I think that although Brad DeLong describes his starting point as being a theory which is probably based on rational choice, he very carefully qualifies the substance of his article as not being based on any theory at all, and in fact being his own personal subjective observations. So your criticism of the article seems a bit off-base.

      Second, I’m not sure how much sense it makes to simply throw up our hands and say “crowdz be krayzy” and abandon all hope of good governance. It seems more likely to me that crowds have a tendency towards madness, but that they may be more or less mad by degrees, and that it is still possible to work towards a system that works better than the alternatives.

    • 12 May 2012 4:22 pm

      “DeLong himself admits that his rational analysis of human behavior has failed.”

      I think DeLong has experienced a crisis of confidence in his profession, not really its theories. You cited another of his posts, equally interesting: “DeLong smackdown watch: John Emerson edition“, Brad deLong blog, 11 May 2012.

      Some of the comments help dig Prof DeLong out of his hole, explaining that this is a political problem.

      Chris M. said::

      DeLong: “They seemed to me and seem to me to have simply not done their homework, and not be trying to do their homework.”

      Professor Delong remains unwilling to recognize that for the Lucases, Cochranes, Famas, Kocherlakotas, Prescotts and many others, the problem is not incompetence or even laziness but corruption. They continue to parrot these manifestly wrong positions because they are PAID to do so. Time to rise above your class interest professor and face the facts.

      Rune said:

      It’s rather odd that economists, of all people, seem to have overlooked the possibility that people may have an inclination to say that which pays best, regardless of whether they believe it or not. Surely economic theory predicts that a large number of economists will turn out to be opportunistic hacks?

      Alex Carr said:

      Economic theory would likely respond that hacks would quickly lose any credibility and therefore would not be worth paying. The breakdown occurs because these people not only are getting paid to espouse demonstrably false ideas, but that there is no deterioration in their influence. I suspect it is because there is now a critical mass of these “economists” that support each other and this makes them fairly immune to being shunned by the rest of the profession.

      byomtov said:

      Maybe we should think of economists as being closer to lawyers than scientists, more paid advocates than analysts. There is a foundation there of course – they can’t just make things up – but it’s a lot murkier than the foundations of chemistry, say.

      Akso, economic policy is an important part of government, and having a prominent role in policy-making is apparently prestigious, and may also lead to less prestigious but much more rewarding employment in the financial industry.

      Most valuable: Altoid said:

      Let’s look at this from the other side. An economics PhD has symbolic and real capital value for its holder inside the profession. It’s the entry stake for academia, which Brad believes is the real economics profession. I’d like to believe that too, but . . .

      Outside of academia, an economics PhD can have enormous symbolic capital value for interest groups because it can be used to legitimize policy positions. Some of these interest groups and their institutions follow academic standards pretty closely and are part of the “profession.”

      Other interest groups don’t give a rat’s ass about academic or professional standards. They just want to borrow the professional symbolic capital (as well as the trappings of academia, like calling their hires “fellows”). Two important things about them are first, that they’re willing to pay top dollar to borrow that symbolic capital, and second, that they’re willing to hire large numbers of economics PhDs. They can afford it, and they really want to sell their positions.

      They create a big demand for this latter kind of PhD, and that demand will be met.

      Now, how is someone who is not an economist of any stripe, who has minimal economic knowledge– say, John Q Public, or a reporter– supposed to be sensitive to the difference between an academic economist and a kept economist? And especially in a time when the media are either more reliant on the big-money interests for operating funds and thus forced to showcase the kept economists, or outright owned by the big-money interests?

      This isn’t unique to economics, btw. It’s a big problem in the foreign-policy and public-opinion biz too. So I don’t think it’s just bad faith on the part of individuals. When academic credentials have bigger value to interests outside the academy, trouble can follow for the profession.

  3. 12 May 2012 3:32 am

    As a counter to Clueless in Berkeley try Fred: The Need to Lynch Zimmerman – The Coming Race War in America, 19 April 2012.

    Rational Analysis in the body Politic? America is over populated by a captured Politic that simply walks along merrily ignoring the rest of “them”, offering condescending Email Alerts about social issues. And you wonder what comes next?

    Breton

  4. Ole C G Olesen permalink
    12 May 2012 9:04 am

    I am Not an american voter.. so I should shut up ! But i do NOT think the article presented tells ME as an interested foreigner anything worthwhile reading . It is WISHY WASH ! It doesnt spell out clearly ..what everyone can see .

    And HOW does the american political system work? Let me exemplify . Mr Bill Clinton.. still a politician .. is the Washington Lobbyist for NOBLE ENERGY ..out of Texas . His wife … isnt she Foreign Secretary ? .. less than a year ago ..went to Greece .. and had the stomach to suggest to the greek gouvernment to bury the tomahawk with Turkey … put all the potentially huge Oil & Gas reserves in their common part of the East Mediterrainean Basin in 1 pool and SHARE the spoils : 20 % to Greece … 20 % to Turkey …..and ? 60 % to Noble Energy .. out of Texas …. ha ha ha ha … a good one .. that one right ?

    And that is how American Politics function … to .. more or less hidden enrich the unscrupulous … casting smokescreens of all kind of “threats” to the people to be distracted by … using these partly fabricated partly provoced threats and wars as the tool to be able to legislate as needed with the ultimate goal of CONTROL so that .. the known .. and unknown … elites….can continue to enrich themselves on the expense of the american middle classs .. whom they ..judged by the ARROGANCE wittnessed almost daily .. must consider a FLOCK of SHEEP

  5. 12 May 2012 1:02 pm

    Is Democray in America broken? Does the sun rise in the East? (…or something about bears….) Try this one (Brad): Occupy Galt’s Gulch, 8 May 2012.

    Keep swimming in your Dad’s loafers (and living entirely off our backs!) and try to tell all of us how bad the Repubs are and how bright are your friends, Christine and Larry and Peter.

    The Financial guys (that you issued Apologia for) merged with the Government and swallowed it whole. And that sir, is America. And many of you will watch as 50% of your fellow citizens are sent off to Debtors hell and will turn aside and enjoy your life. Duh.

    Breton

  6. 12 May 2012 5:15 pm

    Democracy seems broken to me. I just got my mail-in ballot, and of course, I can choose Ron Paul, but like, what’s the point now? It’s as if the thing has already been decided, err, actually it has actually already been decided. This is only a symbolic gesture. Here in California, we are rarely contested, and seldom does the vote in Presidential election seem all that important. This usually includes the general as well.

    This aspect is not broken. I switched to permanent mail in voting, and this is massively convenient. Basically I can sit comfortably at home and google random candidates for the obscure offices at my leisure. When I used to go in, there were always a few things that I picked, lottery style.

    • 12 May 2012 11:23 pm

      By broken perhaps you mean “incapable of self-government”. A society where many people see Ron Paul as a reasonable candidate is probably broken. With his ignorant views of history and economics, and a history of conspiracy-mongering. And 77 years old (Reagan was 78 at the end of his second term, and barely functional as President).

      Some posts about the mythical universe inhabited by Ron Paul and his followers:

      Krugman has some excellent analysis:

      • Don’t Know Much About (Ancient) History — “People like Ron Paul don’t like to talk about events of the past century, for which we have reasonably good data; they like to talk about events in the dim mists of history, where we don’t really know what happened.”
      • On the Uselessness of Debates — “everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said “Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!” — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down”
      • Americans are “Free to Die” if they lack health care
      • Speaking of People Whose Models Have Failed” — “Paul is unique among politicians in making monetary policy his signature issue. So it’s worth noting that he is among those who have been wrong about everything in this slump.”
    • sglover permalink
      16 May 2012 4:32 am

      About Ron Paul — I probably wouldn’t vote for the guy because of his economics. But can you name ANY national rank politician who’s taken on the empire, the war on (some) drugs, the rising security, the way he has? If nothing else, the man’s given a tremendous public service by speaking about cancers.. We know that pipsqueaks like Obama & Romney won’t even **mention** them. Between those two, this November’s circus is simply pointless.

    • 16 May 2012 5:20 am

      New political positions, outside the mainstream, are often first adopted by cranks. But that doesn’t mean that we should court disaster by electing them. We elect men and women, not policies.

    • sglover permalink
      16 May 2012 11:01 pm

      Sheesh, proofreading.

      …the rising security… should read “the rising security state”.

      …speaking about cancers.. should read “speaking about those cancers”.

      Sorry, but I hate to sound like a sub-literate.

  7. Thomas Moore permalink
    13 May 2012 12:37 am

    Matt D. remarks: “Second, I’m not sure how much sense it makes to simply throw up our hands and say `crowdz be krayzy’ and abandon all hope of good governance.”

    I don’t believe I said that. Matt D. appears to be engaged in the fallacy of the missing middle. There is a reasonable middle position twixt deLong’s rational choice delusion that we can analyze the behavior of voters in a democracy based on the (faulty) assumption that they will vote logically, and throwing up our hands in despair.

    As George Lakoff has pointed out, liberals tend to lose out to Republicans in electoral contests because the Republicans know something liberals either don’t know, or have forgotten. Namely, that human beings are motivated by passions rather than pure logic. Simply setting forth facts and using a series of logical arguments may prove satisfying for liberals, but it’s not the way to get the electorate on your side.

    Liberals need to stop whining about their electoral losses and learn to market their policies better. Liberals need to start using the irrational passions of crowds for positive ends, by using emotional messages that reinforce and encourage the kinds of behaviors that will strengthen democracy.

    For example, I don’t see a lot of liberals who are messaging things like “Republicans want to murder pregnant mothers.” Despite the fact that Republicans recently decided to pass legislation refusing chemotherapy to pregnant women with cancer. I don’t see a lot of liberal using messages like “Let’s build a stronger America together by rebuilding our cities to prepare for Peak Oil.” Instead, you get liberals nattering on about wonky details of gasoline tax policy that may have value, but just aren’t going to motivate peoples’ passions.

    Liberals could get very explicit about this kind of messaging. They could point out that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” That’s not just an imaginary tagline, incidentally — it’s from Dwight Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech. Eisenhower knew how to motivate men. He didn’t use dry Spock-like logic. He spoke to their passions, because he knew that people are fundamentally motivated by emotions. People are irrational. That can make us despair when Republicans manipulate the electorate’s baser passions — but liberals can just as easier manipulate the electorate’s nobler passions, for positive ends. But liberals need to start doing that. This bullshit of sitting around citing statistics won’t get anyone in the electorate stirred up and enthusiastic about voting.

    • 13 May 2012 12:56 am

      “I don’t see a lot of liberals who are messaging things like “Republicans want to murder pregnant mothers”

      I wonder about this. Perhaps the Democrats have put their emotional chips on the Global Warming crusade. As in only we can save the world from certain destruction. Plus the incredible flow of exaggerated, even hysterical, forecasts of disaster.

      But these claims have worked only to fan irrational fears of their supporters, not broadening their political support.

  8. Thomas Moore permalink
    13 May 2012 12:50 am

    Another thought — the phrase “Democracy is broken” conjures up a dysfunction in Boyd’s OODA loop. Today it seems as though every part of America’s OODA loop is busted.

    America’s ability to observe reality is badly broken, as you can see when you look at the headlines or watch TV. Compare with the topics dealt with in foreign newspaper outside the bubble of the American media fantasyland. American media obsess over horse-race minutia (“Who is ahead in the battle for the Republican nomination?”) while utterly ignoring huge stories like the ongoing collapse of the war in Afghanistan, the accumulating economic pressures produced by onrushing Peak Oil, etc. The classic example of this was obviously the media frenzy in America over the Natalee Holloway case to the exclusion of other far more significant news. And this trend has gotten worse, not better, over time.

    Our ability to orient ourselves is obviously completely broken. The main debates in this American presidential electoral center around crazy crap like whether Mitt Romney bullied gays in high school and utterly ignores the huge issues like the disappearance of the U.S. middle class, the uncontrolled growth of American corporate power, America’s out-of-control prison-industrial complex and seemingly endlessly expanding War on Drugs and consequent creation of a gulag society, etc.

    Our ability to decide is massive defective. Barack Obama seems the poster boy for this American dysfunction: he seems to want to split the different on every issue, especially ones on which splitting the difference means ruination and catastrophe. Faced with neocons who want to go to war everywhere in the world and Democrats who advocate an end to our foreign wars, Obama splits the difference with an endless unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Not a good policy. Faced with military-industrial minions who want vast increases in U.S. military spending and Democrats who propose reductions, Obama splits the difference with a modest increase (8% last year) in the U.S. military budget. Bad idea. Faced with crypto-totalitarians who want to turn America into an East German-style police state with bills like SOPA and civil libertarians who propose rolling back the surveillance state, Obama splits the difference by merely massive expanding Bush’s surveillance state. Very poor policy.

    Our ability to act is clearly nil. The fibilustering of essentially every Democratic initiative and the refusal to pass on any of Obama’s presidential appointments has produced vapor lock in congress and shut down the government.

  9. Don permalink
    14 May 2012 12:50 pm

    Sorry, but this is not good stuff. It boarders on propaganda.

    My favorite quote: “Obama’s proposals have been more along the lines of $1 of tax increases for every $5 of spending cuts”.

    Really?

    • 15 May 2012 2:25 am

      Don,

      Why does it border on propaganda? Why is “really” a serious reply? The Internet is your friend! Use it to find authoritative answers.

      For the next year our options are limited, without pitching the economy back into recession — which might happen anyway, as some (eg, ECRI) forecast. See the Congressional Budget Office’s “An Analysis of the President’s 2013 Budget“, 16 March 2012. It shows tax cuts of $3 trillion and spending cuts of $0.2 trillion.

      But most analysis of the President’s long-term proposals show the 5:1 ratio; the CBO has not yet scored it. Here’s Ezra Klein of the Washington Post:

      Here’s the basic outline of the White House’s long-term budget proposal:

      Top line: $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years, backed by a “trigger” that begins making across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending and tax expenditures if debt if we’re not on track by 2014. That’s achieved through:

      Discretionary spending cuts: Increases the non-security spending freeze to the freeze-plus-cuts proposal favored by the deficit commission. That nets roughly $800 billion. Lops a further $400 billion off of the security-related discretionary spending.

      Health care: Directs the Independent Payment Advisory Board to hold cost growth in Medicare to GDP plus 0.5 percent rather than GDP plus 1 percent. To make that achievable, IPAB gets new powers, including the ability to restructure Medicare’s insurance so it pays differently for treatments of different value. Also shortens the patent on biologic drugs from 12 years to seven years, implements the recommendations from the National Governors Association working group on Medicaid, and does a few more things. Total savings: $480 billion.

      Non-Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security mandatory spending: Makes $360 billion in cuts.

      Tax reform: Raises $1 trillion by clearing certain expenditures from the tax code. Also assumes the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for income over $250,000. The breakdown of spending cuts to tax increases in the proposal is 3:1.

      Social Security: Supports negotiations to close the Social Security shortfall consistent with the principles laid out in the budget.

      My initial impression is that this looks a lot like the Simpson-Bowles report, but in a good way. It doesn’t go quite as far on defense cuts, but it also doesn’t implement a cap on tax or spending. It goes a lot further than Ryan’s budget does in terms of actually figuring out ways to save money rather than just using caps to shift costs onto states/beneficiaries. More as I’ve had more time with it.

    • Don permalink
      15 May 2012 3:25 pm

      Fabius, thank you for providing the details that DeLong left out.

      First point: Spending cuts. Let’s look at the CBO data together and clarify one thing. A reduction in the deficit is not a spending cut. Holding growth is not a spending cut. A spending cut is when you actually spend less than you did before! Nothing more or less. On the left side of the page on the CBO website (link provided by you), there is a spreadsheet of the actual data labeled “Tables From The Analysis Of The President’s Budget.”

      I point you to table 1, line 20, labeled “Outlays.” Scanning across the row, there is not a single year in which spending (outlays) decreases. Not one! We are not cutting spending. There is no 5:1 ratio of spending cuts. We are nominally spending more every year. The other tables offer the conclusion in various formats. To counter that “our options are limited” and bringing up the specter of a continued recession are all interesting points and make great topics of discussion. However, they do not change the
      definition of “spending cuts” into something else.

      DeLong did not even feel the need to add the usual econospeak (“adjusted for inflation”, “mandatory vs discretionary spending”, “on budget vs off budget”, “as a percentage of GDP”, etc). He just implies that those unreasonable fools (Republicans) would not agree to the 5:1 ratio as if it really existed at all. Now, I might let the verbiage slide if DeLong was… say, a political scientist. He’s not. He is an economist and he knows darn well what a “spending cut” is. He also knows seems to know what “spin” means, which brings us to our second point: Propaganda.

      Propaganda is a form of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position (wikipedia). Yeah, some might think that the topic above fits that description.

      Here is another example from DeLong’s article. He wrote: “Controlling global warming?” What was the purpose of this line? There are no additional details? It is just tucked in there among a variety of other slams against Republicans. Why would he put it there? Is it just there to push blame for global warming (or lack thereof) onto Republicans? Sure sounds like it to me.

      I consider this article very partisan and perhaps propaganda, but please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of reasons to slap the Republicans (and Democrats) around, we don’t need to fabricate reasons. I truly appreciate your blog posts and the time you spend in research and analysis. Even when I don’t agree with you, I find your conclusion to be well articulated and neatly presented. Not so much with DeLong. Cheers!

    • 15 May 2012 3:34 pm

      Don,

      (1) I thought I was quite clear. The CBO analysis was of Obama’s 2013 budget. The Delong article discussed the on-going negotiations about long-term budget changes. You are looking at the 2013 budget, not the article I showed from the WaPo about the latest of Obama’s long-term proposals. You are indicting DeLong based on a incorrect comparison.

      (2) “Here is another example from DeLong’s article. He wrote: “Controlling global warming?” What was the purpose of this line? There are no additional details? It is just tucked in there among a variety of other slams against Republicans.”

      That is an accurate statement — not a slam — as the policy of the Congressional GOP (esp in the House) is total opposition to both increased study of climate change and efforts to mitigate it. He rightly leaves interpretation to the reader. What’s your objection?

      This has become an increasingly common meme in US political debate (both left and right): facts are unfair. IMO its a primary symptom of our dysfunctionality.

    • Don permalink
      16 May 2012 1:05 pm

      I love facts; let’s list them.

      1) The GOP is not against increasing the study of Global Warming. Go ahead and study all you want. They are against taxpayer funding of that research. Perhaps they would rather fund wars in faraway lands? That last question is conjecture, and perhaps a cheap shot on my part.

      2) The current administration had four opportunities to cut overall spending. He is oh for four (0-4) in that regard.

      3) The WaPo article outlines a plan for “deficit reduction over 12 years”. No promise to cut overall spending. There may be cuts, but most (if not all) of those budgets will be under someone elses reign… er, term. How convenient to make those plans for someone else.

      I’m ready to move on. You get the parting shot.

    • 16 May 2012 2:16 pm

      (1) You are correct about the study of global warming being largely government-funded. However most basic science research in the US is federally funded, esp climate data collection. That’s the point DeLong was making, and it is correct.

      (2) I don’t know what point you’re attempting to make (past action is not relevant to the Obama proposal), but its not relevant to Delong’s discussion. Bush in 2008 had an opportunity to cut Federal spending, but instead increased it (see Wikipedia}. As the the GOP in Congress in Nov-Dec 2010. Neither being insane, they voted to start (2008) and continue (2010) the fiscal stimulus.

      (3) Again, you are not addressing DeLong’s analysis, you’re just dancing. Obama’s proposal essentially implements the very-detailed Simpson-Bowles plan, reduces the deficit by tax increases and spending cuts. The WaPo description mentions some of the specific spending cuts.

      1. Discretionary spending cuts: Increases the non-security spending freeze to the freeze-plus-cuts proposal favored by the deficit commission. That nets roughly $800 billion. Lops a further $400 billion off of the security-related discretionary spending.
      2. Non-Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security mandatory spending: Makes $360 billion in cuts.
      3. Social Security: Supports negotiations to close the Social Security shortfall consistent with the principles laid out in the budget.
  10. sglover permalink
    16 May 2012 4:23 am

    Well, if DeLong is writing that now, you can bet that the democracy actually died around 2006. It seems to take DeLong a good half-decade or more to become dimly aware of what’s been blindingly obvious for years. Yeah, yeah, I know, he’s got the credentials, tenure, etc etc etc. But never forget that DeLong’s a guy who’s sung hosannas to Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers and Timmy Geithner — every time to defend them AFTER their self-dealing and deceptions had been extensively, publicly documented. DeLong’s judgement is simply embarrassing. He’s a really good living metric for a lot that’s wrong with academic economics.

    All that aside, 2006 actually isn’t a bad date for the end of constitutional law. That was the year that Pelosi unilaterally ruled out any impeachment proceedings. Ostensibly because the new Dem congressional majority had so much “work” to do — I think we all know how that turned out. I guess she couldn’t be candid and say something like, “We expect our tribe to sweep 2008, and we musn’t do anything to jeopardize our turn at the trough”.

    • 16 May 2012 5:19 am

      I don’t understand how you can criticize DeLong as late for saying something few in America believe to be true today.

      When you say “blindingly obvious for years”, you mean “to you.” Which is not quite the usual meaning of “blindingly obvious”, unless you believe yourself to be gifted with extraordinary insight.

      I wrote Forecast: Death of the Constitution in July 2006, and dozens of articles since then about this. Until the past year readers’ responses were mostly negative.

    • sglover permalink
      16 May 2012 7:03 pm

      Well, maybe we’re both “gifted with extraordinary insight.”! Actually, I don’t claim any such thing. I just like history, and I try to mesh it with what I see in front of me.

      Look, it on the things that really matter we seem to have been in agreement for some time. I don’t really have much feeling any more for the Constitution’s morbidity or death; I think it was pretty much always a middling design for a system of government. Far more worrisome is the deep rot that I see in many fundamental and admirable institutions and traditions. I really did view, at the time, Pelosi’s sell-out as I described it. Before that, when we waddled into our glorious Iraq adventure, I couldn’t see at anything other than proof that many of our most central “republican” (lowercase “r”) institutions had become broken and captured, were no longer capable of responding to external reality. I’m sure we agree that Iraq was never anything but the greatest strategic idiocy.

      Anyway, about your particular point…

      “I don’t understand how you can criticize DeLong as late for saying something few in America believe to be true today.”

      I think there are two levels to this. “Few in America” believe this because few really think about it. You have to admit, it’s an abstraction, far removed from ordinary experience for most people.

      But when it comes to a guy like DeLong, with his pretense of “grasping reality” (talk about smug with a capital “S”!), there’s another, more damning level. He’s spent **years** deriding people who were telling him of the very things you’re praising him for now. And again, he’s established one hell of a track record of privileged special pleading for people who’ve abetted and GAINED FROM the rot. Look through his archives for his defenses of Summers & Geithner & Rubin & Greenspan (remembering, too, that he has a habit of sending discussions he doesn’t like down the memory hole). Look up his attempts at self-exculpation whenever he grapples with the big question of economics today: How come so many gurus were totally blindsided by the biggest economic meltdown since the 30′s? (Again, hope he hasn’t purged too many of those.)

      “I Begin To Suspect That Not All Americans Behave Like Berkley Faculty” might be a better title for DeLong’s piece than “Is American Democracy Broken?” .

    • 17 May 2012 5:31 am

      I still don’t understand your point. He changed his mind, which is a commendable thing (and rare, in my experience). So I do not share your “damning level” characterization.

      Second, no matter how you dress it up it’s fact that few agree with you-me-him about the state of the Repbublic. He may be later to the party than some, but he’s there ahead of the crowd.

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