08 November 2013

Living with Consequences: Principles v People

What I have never been able to understand about the reasoning of the American Republican party, is how it manages to separate principle from consequence with no apparent self-awareness whatsoever. It's tempting to label this as simple, blatant and willful hypocrisy or bad intentions, but that is too easy: we can't just dismiss a significant portion of the population as evil and leave it at that. For one thing, I personally know several Republicans who suffer this disconnect in their thinking, and I can tell you that they are not evil people. Quite the contrary: some are among the kindest people I know. Some are also quite bright, as are many Republicans (despite what left-wing talking heads would like you to believe), so we can't set their beliefs aside as the inevitable outcome of unintelligent people making policy.

So whence the disconnect? I think it stems from two things: 1) an inability to empathize with anyone outside your own sphere of direct experience and 2) an inability to connect principles on the one hand with the logical consequences of acting on those principles on the other. I won't touch that first point as I am neither psychologist nor father confessor. Lack of empathy is a personal problem people need to address through self-examination. But let's look at some examples of that second point.

1) Principle: A combination of small government/low taxes increases freedom and thus happiness. Practical consequence: poor services and infrastructure reduce the quality of life for all. This wouldn't be so bad if Republicans admitted the relationship between these two and asserted that the consequence was worth the principle. But they defiantly refuse to admit that there is a direct, indisputable link between starving a government of funds and that government being unable to provide services and infrastructure that everyone, Republicans included, takes for granted. You hear examples of this all the time, every time you hear a Republican friend complain about potholes or bad schools or poor funding for the police in one breath, while in the next breath bemoaning their high tax burden. There is no such thing as a free lunch: you either pay the price for civilization (i.e., taxes) or you live without the trappings of a civilized society, leading to generally low levels of life satisfaction. Ah, Republicans counter, but wait! It's not that we are saying that all taxes are bad, just that we could have all these nice things with current taxation if only the government didn't waste so much/wasn't so bloated. There's just one small problem with this argument: it has little basis in reality. I am not suggesting the government doesn't waste money. No government since the dawn of civilization could make such a boast. But if you actually take the time to look at the US federal budget and cut away every single thing you could conceivably consider as wasteful, then add in all the things we all want (but that some of us refuse to pay for), you come up with a total that is greater than the sum of taxation that Republicans are willing to pay. Don't take my word for it. Look at the federal budget. Cut away whatever you hate (foreign aid, assistance to the poor, whatever); leave the stuff you like (military spending, servicing the debt in order not to default, Social Security and Medicare, national parks, law enforcement, etc.) and add in what it would take to meet the needs not currently being met (the ones you complain about all the time, e.g. poor roads and bridges, unevenly and poorly funded schools, understaffed agencies that make you wait longer than you'd like, etc., etc.). I guarantee you that unless you are the most hard-core libertarian around, you still have a budget whose needs are not met by the size and revenues of our current government. Do the math. You will be amazed.

2) Principle: government debt is bad and must be stopped at all costs. Practical consequence: starving the economy, harming our creditworthiness and creating an unstable economic environment. First a major correction to the conventional wisdom that right-wing governments are more responsible with spending that left-wing governments: this simply isn't true, either here in the US or in Europe, as I showed in a 2012 post. The indisputable, easily verifiable fact is that most of the current US federal debt was run up under Republican administrations. But let's put aside blame and focus on consequences. The fact is that national debt is not (despite the folksy wisdom of some populists) anything like extravagant household credit card debt; it can be and often is an investment in growth, and, depending on interest rates and needs, can be a very smart thing to have. For example, if you have a bridge that is falling apart today and you can borrow $100,000 at 3% to fix it now versus waiting til it collapses in five years and spending $10,000,000 to rebuild it, is debt bad here? If unemployment is high now and that is draining resources from unemployment funds while also reducing the tax base, is it better to allow that to continue with no debt or invest in fixing both the drain on resources and the damaged tax base? Government debt is an investment tool. When used wisely, it is not inherently evil. Granted, we have often used it very unwisely, but for those cases, you might want to look more at Reagan in the 1980s and Bush II in the 2000s, when all we got were irresponsible,  deficit-ballooning tax cuts and huge spending programs that did nothing to boost the long-term health of the economy.

3) Principles: government shouldn't tell the private sector how much to pay workers and government aid to the poor in unsustainable. Practical consequence: a poor minimum wage that has failed to keep up with inflation means that there is ever MORE pressure for the government to help the poor. You want to reduce Medicaid and welfare and food stamps? Much of this money goes not to the so-called 'idle poor' but to the working poor, including the lower ranks of our disgracefully-paid military servicemen and -women. So you can't have your cake and eat it, too: we either have to insist on a decent minimum wage and benefits to allow the working poor to support themselves, or you have to accept higher expenditures on aid to the poor. You can't have both a low minimum wage and a self-reliant lower economic class. It simply isn't realistic. Again, no free lunch.

4) Principle: sex education is immoral and it corrupts children. Practical consequence: higher teen pregnancy rates and more abortions, two things Republicans also decry. There are few areas where disregard for the practical consequence of principles does more harm than here. The bottom line is that abstinence-only 'education' simply doesn't work. Giving children the real facts about sex, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, is far more effective at reducing teen pregnancy, the demand for abortions and STDs. This is not an opinion: there are mountains of data to prove this. Don't believe me? Try looking at a map of the distribution of teen pregnancies and STDs and comparing them to the red state v blue state electoral map and tell me you don't see a pattern.

I could go on, but the picture is clear: Republican principles are completely divorced from their practical outcomes. But what causes this disconnect? I think part of it is the nature of what drives the Republican mentality: unquestioning conformity to principles that are often seen as either divinely mandated or as part of an obligatory legacy of the Founding Fathers. I can't understand the logic of either of these. Even if I believed in a god, it would be one who cared about the actual outcomes for its children. And as for the Founding Fathers, the one thing people forget is that their real legacy is a framework in which we are free to create (and re-create) our own country for our own times. With all due respect to them, they were creatures of their age, and I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in the 18th century. They were a wise group, but they were, by our modern standards, also pretty misogynistic and racist. I do not judge them for that: we are all products of the age in which we live; but neither do I set such people as infallible demi-gods to whose values and ideas and structures I must cling. And they never expected us to: that's why the Constitution is a living, changeable document and one subject to the tradition of juris prudence, a tradition that allows us to adapt this document to changing values and circumstances. Such malleability is key if we are to maintain our Constitution in an ever-changing world. The Fathers couldn't have foreseen ICBMs and Uzis, the end of slavery and the liberation of women and minorities.

So how do we work with people who believe that they cannot be wrong because their principles come from on high? Well.....we don't. Sorry. Not that I don't want to, not that I don't wish we could, but by definition of who they are, it simply isn't possible to treat with the more radical wing, especially the Tea Party extremists, because their mentality leads them to classify reason and compromise as treason. You can't negotiate with someone who believes he is divinely instructed to do what, and only what, he thinks is necessary, facts and the practical consequences be damned. So all we can do is build as large a coalition as possible of liberals, centrists and the ever-fewer reasonable right-wingers and try to work around, over and under this group and wait for what always happens to reactionaries: their burial by the crushing judgement of history and the unstoppable (if slow) wave of change. The worse they can do is slow us down for a while. 

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