don’t look now, but the campaign is working

According to a lasting view of American politics, the Big Conversation should be about the role of government in the economy: the extent to which government should be engaged in taxation, redistribution, risk management, and so on. And one of the recurrent complaints about the state of US politics is that the image consultants, spin doctors, distractions, etc., conspire to deprive voters of the opportunity to weigh in on that set of central questions.

By that criterion, I think this is among the most successful campaigns in recent history, at least so far (we’ll see what tomorrow’s debate brings). Sure, it’s far from perfect, but the questions that keep coming up are about fiscal fundamentals: the importance of, and strategies for managing, the deficit; the proper level, distribution, and structure of federal taxation; the role of the federal government in protecting citizens from fiscal risk such as through the collapse of the auto industry and the increasing costs of health care; even the appropriate treatment of capital/wealth vis-a-vis workers.

The 47% “gaffe” Romnney made is not actually a gaffe–it’s an honest assessment in which the candidate actually thinks the problem is that people not subject to federal income tax are moochers, as opposed to that they are on the losing end of growing income inequality and therefore not required to pay federal income tax. Paying too much tax if you’re Romney is disqualification from being President, but paying too much if you’re a low- to moderate-income worker or retiree is mooching. Similarly with the much-maligned line about environmentalism from Romney’s convention speech. It’s an honest statement of the values the candidate espouses: that private families are more important than public goods. Similarly with Paul Ryan’s budget: the biggest problem is not its lack of specificity but rather the values it implements.

The contrast with the Democratic convention couldn’t have been clearer. There the lines were about publicness: you don’t close the door behind you, you bring someone up after you, you’re not on your own. To be clear: in the watered-down American context, these really are claims about collectiveness, a concept that troubles many Republicans and certainly Libertarians. Not only does it not trouble me, but I’m delighted to see the party making an active, affirmative case for collective responsibility instead of hiding and apologizing for it.

Elections do have consequences, and if this election goes the way it seems to be headed, I think the Democrats can and should interpret it as a clear mandate for responsible, active government, since the conversation is focused on that central vision.

6 Comments

  1. Posted October 3, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve read this a couple of times and I think there must be a typo here: ” Paying too much tax if you’re Romney is disqualification from being President, but paying too much if you’re a low- to moderate-income worker or retiree is mooching.” I’m sure nobody is saying that paying too much tax if you are low income is mooching, and I can’t figure out what the first half would mean even if I substitute “too little” for “too much” in the sentence.

    Beyond that, I’d agree that the topic has been broached, but there’s still a long way to go before politicians are actually talking directly about these issues. I agree about the Democrats raising the collective vs. individual matter but they are not talking about an economic engine based on equality and consumers versus a finance-driven inegalitarian society.

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    • Posted October 3, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Oops, you’re right OW – sorry! I got carried away with the comparison. I’ll let the error stand rather than try to clean it up now.

      As for the substantive point: I don’t mean to say things are as I would like them to be; only that, as of now, the conversation is more about the right topics than it often is.

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  2. Posted October 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I have two big issues with this argument:

    1.) The fact that 47% of folks don’t pay income taxes is not a result of growing inequality. It’s the result of many years of GOP and bipartisan successes in lowering federal income taxes to the point where the US has the most progressive tax structure in the world. The reason other countries have much larger welfare states is because they tax the hell out of poor and middle class folks. Public goods require broad public contributions. I won’t defend Romney (which one could arguably make the case that his comment was about collective responsibility) but I don’t hear any Democrats calling for a more regressive tax structure under the banner of the collective responsibility to provide more public goods or to protect against risk.

    2.) You are right that the Democrats have emphasized the collective good over individualism in one area. Unfortunately, its civil liberties. The recent removal of several civil liberty promises from their platform plus President Obama’s increased use of drone strikes (and their accompanying collateral damage) indicate that they willing to let the safety of the collective trump individual rights.

    Given these two facts, I have trouble seeing how the individual vs. collective narratives are really shining out this election season.

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    • Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      Josh, I think the reason for the 47% figure is two-fold. The progressivity of the tax structure is certainly part of it, but it’s also the case that, particularly during the recession, being in the bottom end of a highly unequal distribution puts you below the bar.

      As for #2: did you pay attention to the conventions, or the platforms? Again, my point isn’t that everything is great, but rather that the rhetoric deployed by the Democrats is actually measurably more collectively responsible, in an economic, class-mobility sense, than that deployed by the Republicans. I can provide a long list of disappointments in the President and the Democrats (including civil liberties and drone attacks), as can I’m sure lots of other people, but that’s a different point from mine.

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    • Posted October 8, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      “It’s the result of many years of GOP and bipartisan successes in lowering federal income taxes to the point where the US has the most progressive tax structure in the world. The reason other countries have much larger welfare states is because they tax the hell out of poor and middle class folks. Public goods require broad public contributions.”

      Well, yes, it is the most progressive if we don’t count what the money is spent on. We spend a disproportionate amount on defense, for example. And the net tax rate for the poor and middle class folks after transfers is comparable or worse than in those other countries with higher nominal rates. In other words, while the US tax system may be more progressive, the tax-transfer system is not. But it’s not clear a more progressive tax-transfer system is possible only if poor and middle class folks are taxed at a higher rate as well. If the US adopted top rates comparable to those in Scandinavian countries this could also increase money available for public goods (although this is unlikely to be politically plausible/sustainable).

      In any case, if the GOP has primary or shared responsibility for the current situation of low/no taxes for the poor and middle classes, and a relatively stingy set of public goods, it seems rather odd to now credit the GOP candidate for advocating “collective responsibility” by criticizing this state of affairs (particularly, as something Democrats are to blame for). It also seems odd to fault Democrats for not touting higher taxes for the poor and middle class after an economic collapse in which real income for these groups has decreased (not to mention the now-decades-long sustained tax revolt campaign by Republicans).

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  3. Posted October 4, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I take it all back. That was awful last night.

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