Thursday, March 23, 2017

Dealing with the Trump Phenomenon

I've run across a number of excellent discussions of the Trump phenomenon and how to deal with it:
Together, these articles form a coherent narrative and way forward.  I'll provide short summaries of each to illustrate.

Is Economic Despair What's Killing Middle-Aged White Americans?, by Alana Semuels

Ms. Samuels discusses the declining fortune of white, working class Americans.  Her approach is descriptive, not political.  I'm tempted to quote at length from this article, because it's power is in the accumulation of credible academic surveys and evidence that the economic and sociological problems of the white, working class Americans are real and significant.  But you can see the evidence yourself at the link, so I'll just highlight here what I see as an important observation:
in a new paper, economists Case and Deaton explore why this demographic is so unhealthy. They conclude it has something to do with a lifetime of eroding economic opportunities.  Case and Deaton see a large uptick in deaths from suicides, poisonings, and alcoholic liver disease among whites with lowest levels of educational attainment... They divorce or have trouble finding a marriage partner because of their poor economic prospects...  low income and low job opportunities, after a long period of time, tears at the social fabric  
This is in contrast to Europe, where people of all educational backgrounds are living longer... Case and Deaton theorize that this trend is not happening in Europe because of the social safety net there. 

Ms. Williams is empathetic.  She points out the problems faced by the white working class, and the reasons they have been resistant to reason from the liberals' perspective.  She provides five guidelines for dealing with the predicament that is the white working class in the U.S.
  1. Understand That Working Class Means Middle Class, Not Poor
  2. Understand Working-Class Resentment of the Poor
  3. Understand How Class Divisions Have Translated into Geography
  4. If You Want to Connect with White Working-Class Voters, Place Economics at the Center
  5. Avoid the Temptation to Write Off Blue-Collar Resentment as Racism

Frank Rich, in my opinion, reacts poorly to the Trump phenomenon.  His conclusion is to let Trump voters live with their decisions.  Liberal empathy and argumentation isn't likely to change the minds of Trump voters, and we just risk compromising our values, as well as wasting our time and energy, if we indulge these spoiled brats.  Here are a couple of quotes:
The notion that they can be won over by some sort of new New Deal — “domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance),” as Mark Lilla puts it — is wishful thinking
 Perhaps it’s a smarter idea to just let the GOP own these intractable voters. Liberals looking for a way to empathize with conservatives should endorse the core conservative belief in the importance of personal responsibility.

First of all, I think he's wrong about the impact of "some sort of New Deal".  

Secondly, I don't think it's smart to just ignore the voters in the areas where Trump is popular.  Rich may be right that many of these voters are intractable, but many others may not be.  

Rich presents a false dichotomy:
Listen and be Empathetic OR Be Resolute in our Liberal Convictions

Of course we can do both.

Thus we should propose domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) because we believe these will be good for our country, including our suffering citizens in areas that voted for Trump.  Personal responsibility should not be conflated with guilt by class or place of residence.

Politically, Sun Tzu had a point when he said, in The Art of War
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Listening, being empathetic, and proposing more programs to solve working class problems in rural, rust belt, and even southern areas is the strategic, as well as moral, imperative.  

Dale Beran takes the above discussion one step further by comparing a Trump voter to a child having a tantrum.  I'm a firm believer in letting a child work through his or her tantrum.  There's no point in trying to reason with someone who is trying to gain attention by being unreasonable.  On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore the conditions underlying the tantrum.  The correct response is to ignore the nonsense and deal with the underlying issues.

With regard to Trump voters, that means we don't ignore the real issues.  Does that mean we run the risk of wasting our time trying to reason with the unreasonable?  That is something we can control, to a large extent.  We can minimize the impact of the nonsense by treating it as such, without dismissing whole groups of people or regions of the country.  

Rich suggests that we "hold the empathy and hold on to the anger".  I agree that we should hold on to the anger, as that gives us energy to maintain our focus.  But that is only half the battle.  The other half is having a plan to succeed in dealing with the very real problems of the working class in the U.S.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Neo-Liberalism Revisited

A contentious debate has erupted amongst Democrats regarding the term neo-liberal.

Leftists (such as myself) use the term derisively to indicate that the Democratic party has become Republican-lite.  The Dems, according to this view, compromised too much since the time of the Reagan Revolution. Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it and declared the era of big government over.  The power base of the Dems shifted from unions to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.

Centrists argue that there is still significant space between the Democrats and Republicans.  Democrats still believe in Keynesian economics, and the role of government to regulate the economy, and stimulate the economy in times of recession.

In discussing these views, I was recently informed of an essay by Charles Pierce from 1982, entitled A Neo-Liberal's Manifesto.  I think it captures the essence of neo-liberalism, as neither a totally positive nor totally negative phenomenon.  It was well-intentioned, but not successful as the Republicans got what they wanted in terms of more unbridled capitalism, but surrendered nothing with regard to the economy.

In reviewing Pierce's analysis, the one thing that stands out to me (naturally, given my economic world view) is his "seriousness" regarding government finances:
Another way in which the practical and the idealistic merge in neo-liberal thinking is in our attitude toward income maintenance programs like Social Security, welfare, veterans' pensions, and unemployment compensation. We want to eliminate duplication and apply a means test to these programs. They would all become one insurance program against need.
As a practical matter, the country can't afford to spend money on people who don't need it... as liberal idealists, we don't think the well-off should be getting money from these programs anyway -- every cent we can afford should go to helping those in real need... We are, after all, determined to be practical, not to be the kind of liberal who spends without regard to income.
Politically, this turned out to be a disastrous approach.
  1. The Republicans gave only lip service to the deficit, while Dems were more fiscally responsible.  The effect was that Dems provided less stimulus than the Republicans with their multiple tax cuts.
  2. By means testing government programs, the Dems lost much of the middle class.  "Every cent we can afford should go to helping those in real need" may have been a noble idea, but practically it was not necessary, raised legitimate questions regarding incentives, and led to unnecessarily complex programs such as "ObamaCare".
I still like the Pierce's idea of neo-liberalism for the most part, but the emphasis on fiscal prudence at the expense of broad government programs (helping the middle class as well as the poor) should be changed.

A few additonal of Pierce's neo-liberal thoughts that have not fared well based upon the test of time:
Our hero is the risk-taking entrepreneur who creates new jobs and better products. "Americans," says Bradley, "have to begin to treat risk more as an opportunity and not as a threat."
My observation:  Entrepreneurial "heroes" have too often poisoned our society, whether it be the literal poisons of the fossil fuel folks (e.g. Koch brothers) or the financial poison that has come to dominate our economy.

Note also how poorly many of the cited 1982 neo-liberals have fared.  The Democratic politicians uniformly fared poorly and had little impact on the political landscape (Hart, Babbit, Tsongas, Bradley), while several of the journalists seem to have lost their way  (Kaus, Kinsley).  Charley Pierce himself seemed to devolve into something of a ranting crank.  Of all those mentioned, only James Fallows has my admiration.