Eight souls at yesterday’s meeting, maybe because both the Reader and CityBeat failed to list us this week. I might have forgotten this once to contact them.
The discussion was wide-ranging, but three points of follow-up.
First — The Moral Choices Behind Deficit Reduction. Linda made a great point after the meeting that I should have emphasized: Shouldn’t morality inform any decisions we make in this area? Whether we reduce our debt levels by cutting spending, raising taxes, or both, the social safety net we have will be justified by the basic public morality that’s always been its main rationale. A foundational liberal belief is that a decent society protects its elderly from poverty and provides a social safety net for all its citizens so they can have a chance to realize the rights the Constitution says they have on paper. It’s not just economic efficiency or a need to correct market failures that justifies Social Security and Medicare.
Second — “What went wrong.” We talked a bit about the idea that our society is just not spreading wealth and opportunity to the broad middle class (or below) the way it used to. A fantastic series of short articles has just been written on why inequality has been rising so fast. It’s journalism at its finest. Part Five explains how our poliitcal system has contributed to the growing income gap.
If you’re not up to reading these, here’s the best quick summary of the political basis of rising inequality that I’ve seen:
- In the 60s, at the same time that labor unions begin to decline, liberal money and energy starts to flow strongly toward “postmaterialist” issues: civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, etc. These are the famous “interest groups” that take over the Democratic Party during the subsequent decades.
- At about the same time, business interests take stock of the country’s anti-corporate mood and begin to pool their resources to push for generic pro-business policies in a way they never had before. Conservative think tanks start to press a business-friendly agenda and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce start to fundraise on an unprecedented scale. This level of persistent, organizational energy is something new.
- Unions, already in decline, are the particular focus of business animus. As they decline, they leave a vacuum. There’s no other nationwide organization dedicated to persistently fighting for middle class economic issues and no other nationwide organization that’s able to routinely mobilize working class voters to support or oppose specific federal policies. (In both items #2 and #3, note the focus on persistent organizational pressure. This is key.)
- With unions in decline and political campaigns becoming ever more expensive, Democrats eventually decide they need to become more business friendly as well. This is a vicious circle: the more unions decline, the more that Democrats turn to corporate funding to survive. There is, in the end, simply no one left who’s fighting for middle class economic issues in a sustained and organized way. Conversely, there are lots of extremely well-funded and determined organizations fighting for the interests of corporations and the rich.
- The result is exactly what you’d expect. With liberal money and energy focused mostly on non-economic concerns, the country moves steadily leftward on social issues. With conservative money and energy focused mostly on the interests of corporations and the rich—and with no one really fighting back—the country moves steadily rightward on economic issues. Thomas Frank’s famous working-class Kansans who vote against their own economic interests are easily explained. It’s not just that conservatives appeal to them on social grounds, it’s that there’s no one left to really make the economic case to them in the first place. And even if anyone did, they have little reason to believe that Democrats would actually follow through in concrete ways. So why not vote on abortion and gay rights instead?
Third, I promised to list the biggest tax breaks;, i.e., the “tax expenditures” (technical name) that cost the federal government the most money. Click on it to enlarge. Turns out the mortgage interest deduction is only #3. Also, note how popular they all are.