Originally published Nov 20, 2012
While the 2012 elections showed that the majority of Americans have moved forward on issues like diversity, marriage equality and women’s health, progressives still have lots of work to do to make up for 30 years of lost ground on economic issues.
The GOP may have lost the culture war on social issues, but have succeeded in pushing the discourse on the economy so far to the right that progressives are excited that American voters narrowly support raising taxes on the rich to 1990’s levels. To illustrate how much ground progressives have lost on economic issues, the Republicans would like to balance the tax increase Americans voted for with costly cuts to social programs that have been the spine of the middle class since the New Deal. With economic history clearly on the side of progressives, the benefits of investing in the middle class and government stimulus should be conventional wisdom, not the hard sell the Democrats made during their convention. It shouldn’t have taken a hurricane to remind us of the benefits of government.
Americans may now be hip to the fact that tax cuts for millionaires don’t create jobs, but many more persistent economic myths about the failures of government and the evils of “Big Labor” are still widely believed. Meanwhile, the poor are non-existent in mainstream political discourse from either side.
30 years of disinformation about the economy keeps an America that seems to be moving left socially mired in a morass of pre-Depression economic theory. This is of specific concern heading into the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiation, during which Republicans will attempt to savage Social Security and Medicare. Breaking through the right wing mythology about the economy will mean coming to terms with years of indoctrination from Right-funded researchers, pundits, think-takes, journals and professors that have dragged the economic discussion in America to the far-Right.
The Corruption of American Economic Education
Under most circumstances, the remedy to Conservative myths is some form of halfway-decent post-high school education. In the case of economics, higher education too often reinforces Right-Wing free market ideology. Folks who are well-informed on topics like climate change or where babies come from are more likely to have progressive views on those issues, but those same students may also have inherited a Right-bias on economic issues from their college professors.
Last November, during the height of the Occupy movement, Harvard students walked out of professor Greg Mankiw’s introductory economics course, explaining in an open letter that the class “espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.” Before returning to Harvard to teach, Mankiw served as chair of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, during which time his textbook, “Principles of Economics”, was among the top-selling economic texts in the country. Mankiw’s “Principles” (required reading for Harvard’s introductory economics course even before Mankiw returned to teach there) has been criticized for its inherent Right-wing biases:
“Mankiw’s favorite issue—he examines it four times in the book—is the income tax’s alleged drag on work effort. Of course, rolling back tax rates for high earners is the Bush’s administration’s top priority…As evidence in favor of the tax cut, Mankiw points to a study from Iceland showing that people worked more when marginal taxes temporarily were reduced to zero—hardly a strong empirical foundation for his support of the administration’s plans to lower the income tax rate for the rich by 3.6 percentage points and reduce taxes on stock dividends.”
Or how about this review:
“Professor Mankiw also presents a biased view on minimum wage. In his textbook, he contends that a minimum wage causes a surplus of labor supply and thereby leads to unemployment. While this statement might seem sensible based on simplified graphs, it is not necessarily true in real life. For instance, a comparative study of the fast-food industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania found that increasing the minimum wage did not decrease employment levels.”
Still, the book was considered ‘the’ economics text of the time and was required reading in introductory courses not just at Harvard, but in colleges all over the country. Mankiw’s most recent job was economic advisor to Mitt Romney.
Econ majors are taught that economics, as a social science, cannot be concerned with addressing social problems, only with maximizing efficiency. This sets the stage for professors to indoctrinate students about the inefficiencies of unions and government regulations from the perspective of unbiased technocrats, divorced from the social concerns of those institutions. But assuming we care most about market efficiencies is, itself, displaying a Right, pro-capitalist bias. Moreover, while a student is almost certain to be instructed about the evils of minimum wage and how it creates structural unemployment or how welfare hurts work incentives, she is comparatively unlikely to ever discuss with a professor the potential benefits to efficiency of a maximum wage tax on top earners or how large inheritances also have significant, adverse effects on work incentives.
Millenials Identify as (Clintonian) Democrats
Progressives shouldn’t expect younger voters to automatically go left on economic issues, either. Exit polling showed that while “Millennials” (those born between 1981 and ’93) were by far the most likely to self-identify as liberal and vote Democrat. Polling also showed that while Millennials tend to agree that government should provide social services, they were also more likely to be in favor of privatizing them. If you were born in the 80’s it’s likely you were convinced not to count on Social Security long before you ever entered the labor force (remember the 401k was also born in the 80s). For younger generations, access to some government services is something they never expected to be able to count on.
Millennials overwhelmingly agreed that Bill Clinton, a Democrat who signed NAFTA, slashed welfare and deregulated Wall Street, was the best president in their lifetime. With a generation of Democrats like these, who needs Republicans? If Millenials mistakenly associate these economic policies with the prosperity of the Clinton era, they won’t be the only ones. With the exception of Wall Street deregulation, the negative impact of these policies has barely scratched the surface of political debate, probably because rousing too much rabble about them would toss egg on the face of the most popular Democratic president in recent years.
The long-term effects of welfare reform, for example, have proven disastrous, severely deepening poverty and leaving families without a safety net during the most recent recession. It was easy to call the program a success during the economic boom of the 90s, but in the last few years when families have needed it most, welfare has been an abject failure due to Clinton’s rollbacks. The Right have succeeded in making welfare such a toxic issue that advocacy for the poor has been all but completely silenced in mainstream political discourse.
The Media’s War on the Poor
Despite the fact that 50 million Americans (16% of the population) are poor, the seriousness of the issue is beneath everyone’s notice. In its hard yaw to the far-Right, the modern GOP has forsaken compassionate conservatism and doubled-down on their antipathy for the poor, characterizing them as stupid, lazy, immoral moochers, unwilling and unable to help themselves. Democrats have been frustratingly skittish about championing the fight against poverty and, unlike sexier liberal agendas like marriage equality and climate change—issues voters seem to be moving left on—the plight of the poor flies quietly under the radar. For liberals, the poor have become political lepers, a testament to how effective the Right’s campaign to demonize struggling Americans has been.
Mainstream media has played an integral role in reinforcing the Right’s characterization of the poor as stupid, lazy and immoral. The television show “Cops” may have been even-handed in that it featured criminals of all races, but certainly not of all classes. “Cops” (which has been running since 1989) made it seem like all poor people are criminals or, at least, that all criminals are poor. At the same time, morning talk shows like Jerry Springer turned people from inner cities and trailer parks into sleazy sideshows. These shows sent out casting calls for wild, promiscuous teens and unwed mothers to become easy targets for the mockery, ire and judgment of a ravenous studio and home audience.
The successors to shows like Cops and Springer are reality shows that are even more unabashed in their contempt for those below the poverty line. TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” begs for the audience’s mocking disdain for the rural Georgia family that is the subject of the show. Where others settled for turning the humiliating process of having your car repossessed into a nationally broadcasted reality TV spectacle, the intrepid “Repo Games” went a step further by turning repossession into a full-fledged game show in which “contestants” are given the opportunity to win back their repossessed cars by answering trivia questions. Some contestants have become internet sensations for their hilarious answers to embarrassingly easy trivia questions, like one player who thought Bill Clinton was one of the founding fathers.
The more ridiculous answers (not to mention the poor acting and editing) make it obvious that the show is at least partly scripted and that contestants are encouraged to give the most insultingly stupid answers they can think of. This is really nothing new: shows like Jerry Springer also prodded contestants to appear dumber or “more ghetto” to really earn the scorn of the audience. Or sometimes they just make shit up. But the idea is always the same: earn the audience’s hatred.
Unfortunately, shows like these are popular across a broad cross-section of audiences. This constant assailing of the poor—and the extent to which Americans have been complicit in it—is a serious impediment to the cause of addressing poverty, a staple of progressivism.
It’s the economy, mofo
The veil of outdated theories, funky math and outright lies that the Right, in its alignment with the motives of big business, have used to obfuscate all matters economic is beginning to fray at the edges. Americans are committed to increasing taxes on the rich and is developing an immunity to disingenuous Republican fear-mongering about the national debt. But lots more work is needed to make up the ground progressives have lost in the past 30 years: diminishing union workforce, stagnant middle class wage growth, the erosion of important regulation, including anti-trust and the end of welfare as it had existed since the New Deal. Still, the fact that Republicans appear to have lost a little credibility on economic issues leaves the window open for a more balanced discourse that can dismantle years of misinformation about the evils of government, unions, welfare and minimum wage.
Reckless, unregulated, unfettered capitalism can be seen as a central threat to nearly every progressive issue: climate change, food safety, the drug war, poverty and homelessness and the military/prison/healthcare-industrial complexes. Broadening the discourse on the economy and finally putting to bed decades worth of myths will be crucial to winning progressive political battles in the near future.