Today is the Iowa caucuses. The beginning of the Presidential election in earnest. I’ve been wanting to get something written for days now, but for whatever reason haven’t had the wherewithal till just now.
The Krugman bashing over the last week has generally irritated me. Krugman is supporting Clinton, and so there are a lot of progressives writing about why Krugman is wrong, a maybe also stupid, or just callous, and so on. At this point I’m just trying to sit tight. If Clinton wins in Iowa today, then the splitting of the Democratic party with the Progressive movement will begin. If she loses and Sanders wins, it is likely that she will lose the nomination, and the Progressives will attempt to take over the Democratic Party, at which point it will probably fall apart.
I am not the only person who supports Hillary Clinton, nor am I the only person who thinks Sanders is a dangerous candidate for the Democratic Party. But I am relatively isolated – virtually everyone I know wants to see Sanders win. And this has become nearly unbearable for me, because it goes very hard against everything I’ve learned about politics – well, everything except for the lesson that you can never ask people to think about politics in the middle of a discussion. You can’t ever say “Well, if you would just read [insert name of long, obscure text here]” and expect that to work. You have to appeal to what people know already.
And mostly people seem to think that 1) elections are about issues, and the point is to figure out which candidate most nearly represents your own position on the issues of the day, and to vote accordingly; and 2) the point of government is to ensure the welfare of society. These are both basically wrong. Elections are about political power, and who has it. The point of the government is to do what the people in power tell it to do.
Let me give you an example: education. The point of schools is to educate students so they can be productive members of society, and engaged citizens participating responsibly in democratic institutions, right? Wrong. The point of schools is to determine the distribution of income in the workforce. A school is only successful in the sense that it produces income-earning workers, and those workers can only exist within existing employment opportunities. As there are, today, a decreasing number of good jobs (i.e. jobs that offer a stable income and benefits package), which means that the return on investment in education is basically negative. And municipalities are in serious trouble over this, because education is mandated by law, but funded at the local level. And as incomes stagnate, people are unable to pay the necessary taxes to pay for the necessary education to get the dwindling middle and high income jobs available.
And people will say that 1) education is about learning, not about money, so cutting funding is wrong BUT 2) they can’t afford their taxes and their bills as it is, so they can’t possibly afford the schools they already have and also 3) all people must learn to live within their means and balance their budgets, so whatever money schools do have should come out of taxpayer revenues.
Do you see the conundrum I see? There is not enough money, we need more, but it can only come from available income, which is insufficient. This is called austerity politics. The point is not to do what’s best for society. The point is to do what the market wants, whether that is the right thing or not.
And what’s so appealing about austerity politics? You would think that capitalist economies would just hate austerity. And yet this is not the case.
The beauty of the market mechanism is that it is not personal. If you are a landlord, you rent to people who pay their rent. If a tenant runs out of money, you can and should remove them from the land. If that means they die of exposure, that is not your concern. As a landlord, you are simply being prudent. Austerity lets us make decisions that way to achieve goals that we want but are ashamed to admit in public. Governor Rauner doesn’t want to defund Chicago Public Schools because he’s a racist, or because he doesn’t believe that education is important. He wants to defund them because they’re expensive, and he wants to balance the budget. And voters like the idea of balancing the budget. And they like the idea of lower taxes.
I do not believe Bernie Sanders will not take on austerity politics in any meaningful way. I believe this because his campaign is basically a populist campaign. He depends on an emotional appeal, not a logical one. People feel like the economy is unfair, but that doesn’t mean they feel like paying higher taxes or investing in the uncertain futures of people they will never know. And if what they want is an emotional appeal, chances are they won’t respond later to a logical one. If Sanders get the Democratic nomination, all Trump will have to do is say “He will raise your taxes.” The election will be over, just like that.
The thing I have always liked about Krugman is that he’s always making an appeals to reason and evidence. He’s sympathetic to emotional and ethical appeals too, but his normal mode of operation is logical. Now, you can show me Robert Reich’s video where he explains how Bernie has all the facts in lockdown, but I am left unpersuaded. You can’t gloss over massive institutional reform like it will be a seemless transfer of resources, nor can you ignore the difficulties of legislative reform that would be required. And yet that’s exactly what the Sanders campaign has done. They ignore reason and evidence in favor of their feelings – and at their peril.
No matter what happens today in Iowa, I think that the Democratic Party is in serious danger of falling apart, and I think the Sanders campaign has made the situation substantially worse by alienating it’s supporters from the Democratic leadership (who are portrayed as feckless and corrupt). The failure to confront austerity politics will doom politicians to being held hostage by the market.