The Big Three

September 22nd, 2011 at 11:27 pm

There are three fundamental issues that will be at the heart of the political debate from now until the election.  They are:

–the role and size of government

–fairness, both in terms of economic outcomes and tax policy

–the effect of supply-side, trickle down, deregulatory economics

All three are, of course, already in constant motion—the American Jobs Act, the President’s new deficit plan, the current class warfare dust up, and the conservative economic playbook—including that of the R presidential candidates—each one invokes some or all of these core issues, which have, in one way or another, been at the heart of the American political economy since Jefferson first argued with Hamilton.

Faithful visitors to this site know that these fundamental questions are one reason why it exists.  Getting them right has lasting implications for the prosperity of the broad middle class, the mobility of the poor, the productivity of our infrastructure, the security of the elderly, and the opportunities of the young.

These thoughts came back to me when I re-stumbled on this trenchant NYT oped by Stan Greenberg.  I’ve been meaning to write about this piece—Why Voters Tune Out Democrats— ever since it came out at the end of July.  Unless we can answer that question, the likelihood that we as a nation make the right call on the big three is sharply diminished.

Greenberg notes that progressives should be in a much better place regarding our key issues.

“When unemployment is high, and the rich are getting richer, you would think that voters of average means would flock to progressives, who are supposed to have their interests in mind — and who historically have delivered for them.

During the last half-century or so, when a Democratic president has led the country, people have tended to experience lower unemployment, less inequality and rising income compared with periods of Republican governance. There is a reason, however, that many voters in the developed world are turning away from Democrats, Socialists, liberals and progressives…

…In analyzing [US polling data], I see clearly that voters feel ever more estranged from government — and that they associate Democrats with government. If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters’ feelings about government.

They can recite their good plans as a mantra and raise their voices as if they had not been heard, but voters will not listen to them if government is disreputable.”

He points out that most voters favor the ideas progressives and the President support, like infrastructure investment, more progressive taxation, while opposing austerity measures.  But they don’t believe government will deliver.

Or more precisely, that government will deliver to them.  To the contrary, they believe the politicians will just tell them what they want to hear, while delivering goodies (and bailouts) to their corporate sponsors.

“Many voters prefer the policies of Democrats to the policies of Republicans.  The just don’t trust the Democrats to carry out those promises.”

And when it comes to broken government that can’t deliver, the R’s have a real edge.  They can inveigh against government as feckless at best and downright harmful at worst…and then they can make sure that prophecy is fulfilled.

“If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end?”

How might progressive prevail in this climate?  I’ll increasingly speak to that in coming months but here are a few thoughts:

–Greenberg stresses the importance of rebuilding public trust by taking on special interests, lobbyists, special breaks in the tax code, and by imposing a financial transactions tax (a small fee on the sales of securities), and reducing the deficit.

–I’d add that point number two—fairness—is extremely important right now and conservatives are vulnerable.  Yes, they can convincing prove gov’t is feckless—debt ceiling debate—but they can’t hide from facts like the decline in middle class incomes since the late 1990s, the skewing of the tax code, the sharp increase in inequality, and all the existential difficulties that those trends pose, from declining living standards to steeper mobility barriers (e.g., the inability to afford higher ed).

–Also, point number three: they wrecked the car in the 2000s and now they want the keys back.

Like I said, more to come on this, but if progressives want voters to tune us in, we need to send a compelling message over a strong signal stressing the role of gov’t, basic economic fairness, and the failure of trickle down, self-regulating markets.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

16 comments in reply to "The Big Three"

  1. Matthew says:


    I just want to thank you for this blog. As someone who grew up in a very conservative environment (though my parents were more open-minded), I really appreciate the hard data that you present. Your graphs have really come in handy lately in a few debates I’ve had with some hard-line conservatives…Also, it is helpful to me to know that, as FDR said, “we’ve always known we should help each other, now we know it’s good economics as well”.


  2. ReaderOfTeaLeaves says:

    Faithful visitors to this cite know…
    Since I don’t think of OTE as a citation, I presume this is a typo 😉

    As someone who was so busy, and/ or frustrated and/ or alienated by the me!me!meeee! Nonsense spouted by St Ronald of The Trickle Down, as well as GHW Bush, Baron of Carlyle (Group), et cetera, I personally feel as if I have waited an entire, lost generation for the three points listed above to get an airing.

    Unfortunately, during these 30 years, the extent of what I would call ‘cluelessness and misfeasance’ have also increased, under born Ds and Rs. Specific example: 20 years ago, my local and state governments made new rules about housing development in my area; the short version of a long story is that I got stuck with a $20,000+ bill for a sewer hookup the county was supposed to guarantee. The county exec was an amiable man more given to good speeches than to the dogged work of aligning rhetoric with outcomes.

    I can write a lot of donations to GOP candidates when incompetent Dem elected cause me the equivalent of two year’s college tuition (in state). Just sayin’.
    I’d like to say that’s the only money my state, local, or federal governments have cost me, but…. Can you say ‘no bid contracts in Iraq’? Has anyone gone to jail??

    Meanwhile, as of late 2010, the same Wells Fargo bank that my tax dollars bailed out would not increase my small biz loan, and charged me **22%** on my small biz credit card. I was fortunate enough to be able to pay them off and close my accounts and move to a credit union, but as a practical matter this experience left me feeling government is a joke, at best.

    Greenberg is a smart man. Bless his heart for trying. But since Dr JB has been gutsy enough to put up a blog and permit comments, I’d like to register some smoldering resentments about lack of accountability, double standards, and feeling looted.

    I actually believe (fervently) in the importance of government and the **pubic sector to create wealth.**. I was thrilled beyond words to see an online video of Elizabeth Warren call out the cretinous assumptions about self-made wealth! I agree with her that a business can do well in a civil society, with publicly educated workers in a safe community because of cops and firefighters. That is the basis for prosperity, but I haven’t haerd anyone other than a couple smart business and education leaders say that since about 1980.

    But Warren strikes me as competent.
    Government, apart from my local school district and my public power utility, do not strike me as all that competent. That irritates me, and in my view has bred the kinds of Tea Party resentments I hear burbling.

    If the neoclassical views and the extreme wealth is to be revealed as self defeating lunacy, government is going to have to be somehow accountable. The fecklessness of DoJ in failing to go after TBTF banks has to stop. That’s just one example; telling me about equality without enforcing the laws is deeply insulting.

    Call me crazy, but whenever I worked the past 30 years, I had to explain what I did and account for it. If I had told people a sewer line was coming down their road, but I didn’t legally ensure that happened, that $20,000+ would have come out of * my* budget. If I had failed to follow up on a detail like that, I’d likely have been sued!

    So the three point list is a starting point and breath of fresh air for someone like myself, but it is my personal view that without a ‘competence metric’ it may not have enough traction.

  3. Geoff Freedman says:

    The real problem in goverment today is that most folks feel our politicians on both sides the aisle are bought and paid for by special interest groups, and therefore what is spoken is ‘political double speak’ which cannot be trusted.

    The assumtion is that the political system is (more) corrupt (than in prior eras), therefore politicians cannot be trusted, and what is stated for public consumption is disingenuous.

    Until there is campaign finance reform, these attitudes and perceptions are unlikely to change.

    The result is that there is likely to be a series of one term presidents, and high turnover rates in congressional and senatorial elections for some time, as an increasingly restive population searches for the right political voice that is really capable of addressing their concerns.

    • Procopius Furioso says:

      My sentiments exactly. In fact, I think the reason for the apparent disconnect, approval of the policies but disapproval of Obama, is because we’ve had enough experience now to think he doesn’t mean a word of what he says. He acts like a moderate Republican, except he’s a hard-right deficit hawk (a real one, not a phoney like the Tea Baggers). His policy proposals are Republican proposals, and his foreign policy is George W. Bush’s. So people would really like to see policies like he has talked about enacted and followed up on, but they (I) don’t believe Obama is serious about it. As soon as he’s re-elected he’s going to go back to what he really believes in, which is cutting Social Security drastically. And people know it. It’s just that pollsters don’t ask the right question.

    • PeonInChief says:

      This happens in a lot of Third World countries, where each election swings right or left, as the population desperately seeks something, anything, that will “work.”

  4. Stuart Levine says:

    There’s another typo in the posting. At one point you refer to “B/S.” Shouldn’t that be simply “BS.”

  5. Tyler says:

    “Greenberg stresses the importance of … reducing the deficit.”

    Why should we focus on reducing the deficit when the American people clearly want us to focus on reducing unemployment?

    “… if progressives want voters to tune us in, we need to send a compelling message over a strong signal stressing the … failure of trickle down [economics].”

    Didn’t Reagan create 15 million jobs? Also, didn’t unemployment fall after the Bush tax cuts but before the housing bubble popped?

  6. Michael says:

    No, no, no, no.

    Those are the debates within the Democratic Party. The debate between the Democrats and the Republicans is:

    Are we going to allow the people who want to burn the country down as punishment for electing a black President to do so?

    GOP: Yes
    Dem: Probably not.

  7. perplexed says:

    Those three are certainly important, but you forgot to list the fourth, probably most important one, the one the one that links them all together: campaign finance reform. Although you’re probably right not to list it as it probably won’t be seriously debated; but its an issue that will be there, operating below the surface and undermining everything being discussed because the American public knows that no serious political candidate can discuss it openly. Americans don’t trust government because they know they can’t trust government. They’ve been disenfranchised by the power and money of the special interests and they know it. The mistake the politicians are making is think they are fooling the American public. The solution isn’t to find a new way to fool them into thinking its OK, the solution is to fix it! And the trust will not return until it happens. All of the discussion about solutions and what the “American public” wants amount to nothing unless they can be implemented. With a wealth Gini coefficient of .84 and rising, most Americans understand that they have been seriously outbid in the power auction, don’t see a path to a solution, and aren’t being shown any possibilities by those who are dependent on the existing structure and financing for their political survival. The losers in an auction don’t get some part of the goods, they get nothing. If they know ahead of time they’ll be outbid, they stop going to the auction.

    This is why Jefferson thought that the “that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights.” Nowhere did he say “the mass of citizens, contingent on the funding of the wealthy among them.” In fact, he went on to caution that “Experience hath shown that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson

  8. general c. san desist says:

    …the new Congress of ’34 passed a single piece of legislation…the work relief bill. By Spring, the Government was at a standstill. As Walter Lippman reports, “Once more we have come to a period of discouragement after a few months of buoyant hope. Pollyanna is silenced and Cassandra is doing all the talking.”

    As Roosevelt confronted the conservatives & progressives of his own party, the US Chamber of Commerce turned on him by denouncing the New Deal. The President commented, saying the interesting thing to him was that in all the speeches made, there wasn’t a single one that took the human side, the old-age side, the unemployment side.

    In May, the word was sent from Brandeis to the White House…this is the eleventh hour. Senate progressives bluntly urged Roosevelt to assert leadership. As Brandeis framed the situation…urging a return to a more competitive society, not to the anarchy of unrestricted profiteering, but to regulated competition.

    The TVA checked both monopolistic power & addressed decentralization. Such is the motivation behind my effort to coalesce the smart grid-fiber optic undergrounding of utilities (vast labor intensive project) as we establish private energy units at home bases instead of Conglomerate Central …the mass decentralization of energy sources as in homeowner control.

    Where is the shame of those wishing to dismantle social compact. I’m a firm believer experience & historical perspective. If these newbies in Congress & the blogosphere can’t pick out David Leisure BS from a line up should excuse themselves from the discussion. Just saying it is so don’t make it true.

  9. Marie Burns says:

    What you’re missing here is the disconnect between (a) what Americans say they want, & (b) how politicians describe public policy. Just look at how you describe what you call “the fundamental issues”:

    “–the role and size of government

    “–fairness, both in terms of economic outcomes and tax policy

    “–the effect of supply-side, trickle down, deregulatory economics”

    If you think any of these are the way ordinary Americans would describe “the fundamental issues,” you’re wrong. In fact, they wouldn’t even say “fundamental issues.” They would say, “I want to keep this, that & the other thing” — wherein “this, that & the other thing” would all be progressive programs — Medicare, Social Security, Pell grants, etc. Then they’d say they want higher wages & more jobs; i.e., progressive policies. Et-cetera.

    The problem isn’t the programs — it’s the way you policy wonks frame them. John Boehner can hardly begin a sentence without prefacing it with, “The American people want/don’t want….” While it may make him look hubristic to pretend to speak for the “American people,” the overarching message he successfully conveys is, “I care about the American people, and I’m here working for them.” We know that isn’t true, but someone who likes Republicans on social issues or on lower taxes for everybody (wherein “everybody” often turns out to be “everybody who’s rich,” but who’s counting?), is comforted to know the Speaker of the House is speaking for them.

    It’s necessary for experts to use jargon when talking among themselves. The issues are complex and usually can’t be argued using simple language. But every one of you experts, including President Obama, needs to drop policy-speak the minute there’s a reporter or a member of the public in the room.

    “It’s the economy, stupid”? No, it’s the message on the economy.

  10. Phillip Wynn says:

    As to not trusting the Dems, the public is right. Which is why …

    People like Sens. Pryor and Nelson (of Nebraska) have to be primaried. Dems have to get out of the mindset that having a D after the name is always better than an R. If D = R in the important and basic measures, what does it matter if by their being primaried a Republican replaces them? Don’t be shackled before the battle even begins by false arguments about this or that issue. If they can’t stand with the middle class, if they can’t stand with unions, if they can’t stand for fair taxation, then to hell with them. If Dems can’t see this is something we have to do, then we deserve to lose.

  11. Paul H Messenger says:

    –the role and size of government:
    What we have is Leviathan on steroids. Needs to be put on a diet.

    –fairness, both in terms of economic outcomes and tax policy:
    The law promised equal opportunity, not equal outcomes — at least if the economy was based on productivity instead of politics. As far as tax policy goes, what is “fair” is I pay nothing and you pay it all. Sounds fair to me.

    –the effect of supply-side, trickle down, deregulatory economics:
    A load of hot buttons for the wacko left, but if we let the market work it would be a flood not a trickle.

    • perplexed says:

      We’re already seeing the effects of “letting the markets work” (with the assistance of welfare for corporations and the wealthy as usual), and you’re absolutely correct, it is flood, 2/3 of the wealth is now in the hands of 5% of the people! Pocketing the profits generated by the increased productivity of others does not result in a “fair outcome.”