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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The unjust steals the just's umbrella

by John MacBeath Watkins

I am an admirer of doggerel, finding it subversive exactly because it doesn't take itself seriously. Today, reading Mike Lofgren's piece on how the former member of the Republican congressional budget staff views American politics, I thought of a waggish verse by a 19th century jurist named Charles Bowen:

“The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.”
Here's the context. Lofgren was talking about how beltway pundits try to avoid the charge of bias, by noting that the system is broken and assigning blame to congress, not to particular actors.

"Inside-the-Beltway wise guy Chris Cillizza merely proves Krugman right in his Washington Post analysis of "winners and losers" in the debt ceiling impasse. He wrote that the institution of Congress was a big loser in the fracas, which is, of course, correct, but then he opined: "Lawmakers - bless their hearts - seem entirely unaware of just how bad they looked during this fight and will almost certainly spend the next few weeks (or months) congratulating themselves on their tremendous magnanimity." Note how the pundit's ironic deprecation falls like the rain on the just and unjust alike, on those who precipitated the needless crisis and those who despaired of it. He seems oblivious that one side - or a sizable faction of one side - has deliberately attempted to damage the reputation of Congress to achieve its political objectives."
The problem is that damaging the reputation of government is one of the goals of one side of the debate. As Lofgren noted earlier in the piece:

"A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner."
 I do not think we have ever previously had a party determined to prove that government doesn't work, and willing to sabotage it to make sure it doesn't. Remember, the original saboteurs were people who threw sabots (wooden shoes) into machinery to make sure the machinery didn't work. The were the Dutch equivalent of Luddites, destroying mechanical looms that were taking work away from artisan weavers. I almost wrote "willing to throw sand in the gears," but it looks to me like they're throwing something bigger.

Not that they want to undermine all government. The one problem I have with Lofgren's narrative is that he buys into the notion that the Republican Party wants small government.

As we discussed in this post, the number of people employed with federal government funds increased by 35% during the presidency of George W. Bush. Republicans consistently want to fight more wars, arrest more people, and keep people in jail longer. They're also big on agricultural subsidies. And they are opposed to most taxes, that is, other than those that might not benefit those already rich. As a result, the only way they are willing to bring the budget into anything like balance is to cut spending on Democrats' priorities. Their success in doing this is part of the reason the spending map looks like this:

The red states get more money from the federal budget than they send back in taxes. There's a Marxist motto, that "property is theft," and there seems to be a Republican motto to the effect that "taxes are theft." In which case, the umbrellas of the blues are being stolen by the reds.

Now, I don't think property or taxes are theft, and as I have acknowledged before, one major difference between the blue and red states above is that the red states are, on average, poorer. That's why you see Texas, red as they come in terms of Republican popularity, sending out more than it receives -- Texas is a relatively wealthy state.

But a study titled The President and the Distribution of Federal Spending by Christopher R. Berry, Barry C. Burden and William G. Howell, found that "...we find consistent and robust evidence that districts represented by legislators in the president’s party receive systematically more spending, as do those where the legislator or the president was narrowly elected."

It has long been observed that when it comes to budgets, the president proposes and the legislature disposes. In the 40-year span from 1968 to 2008, Republicans were in the White House for all but twelve of those years, with the result we see in the map above.

So, no, Republicans do not believe in small government. As the payroll tax cut extension battle shows, they are not always opposed to tax increases. What they believe in is using government to reward Republicans, whether by spending or through the tax code.

Republicans rail against government because they see it as redistributive. But they've internalized the notion that government is redistributive and tried to use it to redistribute to themselves and their allies.

The Democratic vision of government is that you ask it to do things -- educate children, protect its citizens, and provide a variety of public goods, primarily..

What do we mean by public goods? The standard definition of a public good is one that is needed, that increases productivity, but that does its work in a way that makes it difficult to sell to those who use it. The usual example is a lighthouse. If you build one and try to charge users, it is in their interest to be free riders and let others pay. Consequently, lights to warn mariners of rocks tend, in the absence of a public one, to be provided either on a volunteer basis by people who build fires on dark nights to save mariners, or on a pure market basis by wreckers who build fires intended to fool mariners into running into those rocks.

Where the strangeness of the current Republican Party becomes evident is when you look at what has happened in the investment needed in infrastructure. Most forms of infrastructure are either public or public/private. If 20 years of Republican presidents were simply proposing to spend more on infrastructure in red states than in blue states, the average age of our bridges, roads, and other infrastructure would remain the same. Instead, it is aging rapidly, as Kevin Drum notes.

Here's a chart from Drum's piece, which I recommend you read in full:

The nation's private capital stock, both residential and non-residential, has remained the same since the 1960s. Government capital stock has increased in age by about 50 percent.

The Republican notion that "government is not the solution, it's the problem" has contributed to this. Although Republicans claim government needs the hand of business to guide it, they seem to have little interest in viewing government as a business. If they did, maximizing service and return on investment to taxpayers would be more important than the sort of redistribution they've been preoccupied with during the 28 years since 1968 that they've held the White House. If they viewed the government as a business, they'd figure it needs to invest in its capital stock in order to remain productive.

Instead, they see government as a racket, and act as racketeers, taking from others by whatever means they can get away with. Lofgren apparently found the Republican tactic of holding the nation's creditworthiness hostage during the debt ceiling fight repellant, but it's exactly what you would expect from racketeers.

I'm not denying Lofgren's observation that:

"It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe."
But I do think that the way their ideology manifests itself is harmful not just because of their tactics, but also because their nihilism about government is expressed in making government do less than it should, while doing little to restrain costs.

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