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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press The Philosopher Politicians Reappear at the New York Times

The Philosopher Politicians Reappear at the New York Times

Saturday, 02 March 2013 06:27

It seems pretty obvious to most of us that politicians get elected by appealing to powerful interest groups. They spend enormous amounts of time calling up rich people to ask for campaign donations and speaking to individuals who can help to deliver large numbers of votes. This is hardly a secret.

Yet, the New York Times again tries to tell us that these people are really philosophers, telling readers in a headline:

"Deep philosophical divide underlies the impasse"

in reference to the budget sequester.

The piece explains to readers:

"a step back illuminates roots deeper than the prevailing notion that Washington politicians are simply fools acting for electoral advantage or partisan spite. Republicans don’t seek to grind government to a halt. But they do aim to shrink its size by an amount currently beyond their institutional power in Washington, or popular support in the country, to achieve.

"Democrats don’t seek to cripple the nation with debt. But they do aim to preserve existing government programs without the ability, so far, to set levels of taxation commensurate with their cost.

"At bottom, it is the oldest philosophic battle of the American party system — pitting Democrats’ desire to use government to cushion market outcomes and equalize opportunity against Republicans’ desire to limit government and maximize individual liberty."

Really, this is a battle of philosophy?

Let's try an alternative explanation. Let's assume that Republicans answer to rich people who don't want to pay a dime more in taxes and would actually prefer to pay many dimes less. Let's imagine that these people are not stupid and that they understand completely what conservative economists like Greg Mankiw, Martin Feldstein and Alan Greenspan have been telling them for years, tax expenditures are a form of spending. In other words, if we give someone a housing subsidy of $5,000 a year by cutting their taxes by this amount if they buy a home, it is the same thing as if the government sends them a check that says "housing subsidy."

If we take the philosophy view of this debate then Republicans would be all for eliminating the tax expenditures that mostly go to line the pockets of rich people. On the other hand, if we think this is a debate about whose pockets get lined then Republicans who are opposed to spending would be opposed to eliminating tax expenditures for rich people.

Neither we nor the NYT know which explanation is true. But the NYT explanation requires that the politicians who oppose cuts in tax expenditures and/or their backers are stupid. They may be, or the NYT may just be wrong and badly misinforming its readers.  


Thanks to Keane Bhatt for calling this one to my attention.


Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Chris Engel, March 02, 2013 7:16
I've seen others trying to push the "loophole=tax expenditure=government spending" discussion, but it doesn't seem to take hold, especially not with "conservatives".

No matter how they see it, if loopholes are closed and more taxes are being paid, "the base" of the GOP (teahadists) will be up in arms about 'big government' and 'taxation is theft', even if it's mostly serving the plutocrats.
Another howler from the NYT
written by Mark Brucker, March 02, 2013 11:49
What about the bizarre claim that the Republicans are trying to maximize individual liberty? That might in some way make sense if they were talking about the freedom of the 1% and the 0.1% to buy power and do whatever they want to a great degree. But even that would be seriously wrong if those people are gay and want to marry, want their kids to be free to do so, etc.
The Scientific Method
written by Donald Pretari, March 02, 2013 1:02
"a step back illuminates..." Why is this so funny to me?
Or just saying no to Obama
written by Greg, March 02, 2013 1:49
In terms of just the short-term, just the sequester, there may be a simpler explanation, merely that the Republicans are determined not to give another victory to Obama. This particularly makes sense if you look at Boehner's incentives. Any compromise probably would cost him his speakership, so he has a very strong incentive to refuse any deal.
housing subsidy
written by Dean, March 02, 2013 3:32
It is a little off topic but people need a subsidy of some kind given the outrageous prices they pay for these popsicle stick houses that disintegrate in moderate tornadic winds. If government withdraws the subsidy for buying a house it should withdraw the subsidy to bankers, realtors & local government by refusing to guarantee loans on houses that appreciate in value.
If houses depreciated in value as they age, like cars, the 2007 collapse wouldn't have happened. California's proposition 13 wouldn't have happened either.
If government subsides houses, it shouldn't guarantee loans on houses that can't withstand 250 mph winds; or that appreciate in value, unless there is a significant addition to the house or the neighborhood goes commercial. There are builders who can make a 250 mph requirement affordable. The rest will follow.
Well, yes
written by Tim Worstall, March 02, 2013 5:36
Of course the mortgage deduction should go. And Dean is right about those who defend or oppose it.

My native UK did it 25 years ago: and it was a Tory (read, Republican) government that did it.

So obviously sensible that when it was actually proposed everyone went, "well, yeah, clearly".
no subsidy...price will adjust...
written by pete, March 02, 2013 5:37
Silly notion that the mortgage deduction is a subsidy. It simply raises the price of the house. If the subsidy is withdrawn housing prices will decline, ceterus paribus.

Regarding philosophy, both dems and republicans over the last 40 years have put in place policies that have kept the real wage constant while productivity has soared. Monetary expansion and government regulations lead to rents which are captured by capital. There is no philosophical difference, there is only one party, one philosophy, provide the rich what they want and get reelected. Once in a while you get a Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders, who don't buy in. But they aren't part of the one party system.

So, we bribe the poor to play along, as Keynes said was a good idea, rather than have them revolt. Just enough to keep them quiet. Horrible polices, lousy outcomes.

Tea Party/Occupy folks had a sense of what was happening, but they of course got co-opted, much as the strong anti-government left was co-opted in the 70s by the dems. The republicans try to sweet talk the libertarians, but typically fail miserably when they start talking about gay marriage, drug policy, and immigration.
Hi, Tim :)
written by Chris Naden, March 03, 2013 5:37
to Tim Worstall: nice to see you here :)

Regarding the Tory == Republican analogue; while I understand it, I think it's seriously misleading for Americans who don't know the UK.

Caveat: I don't much like the Tory party, and my opinions are on average well to the 'left' of the entire UK Overton window, with certain exceptions. However, the Tories not like the GOP, certainly not as it has existed since the 112th Congress.

They've got some wingnuts, but those wingnut extreme-right Tories would sit quite happily in a caucus with Ben Nelson and the rest of the Blue Dogs. Most of the Tory party is not that far right of Obama and other mainstream Democrats. The Tory party as I see it doesn't have anything like the Tea Party (they've got UKIP instead, who are similar but different), and certainly doesn't have the narrow-party witchhunt culture which has bunched the entire GOP up into a little ball on the far right.

I would say that from a US perspective, mainstream British politics happens on a spectrum from the Blue Dogs and a couple of remnant RINOs like Olympia Snowe (Tory) to the moderate Dems and 'mainstream liberal' Dems (New Labour and the LibDem Orange Book faction), with the few liberal LibDems that survive being the equivalent of the much-ignored 'liberal' Democrats (that sentence got weird). There's then a very few outliers (Caroline Lucas?) who are to the left of any 'serious' US politicians.
And while I'm here:
written by Chris Naden, March 03, 2013 6:46
To Pete @ 5.37

You equate Occupy with the Tea-Party. I think you might want to re-think that.

Item: the Occupy movement was actually bottom-up, organised using consensus governance structures derived from the experience of Climate Camp and the Anonymous internet campaigning meme. The TEA-Party is, and has been from its first few weeks, funded, directed and provided with its goals by the Koch brothers, Limbaugh and their plutocratic ilk. There simply are no equivalent figures in Occupy, then or now. Therefore, to the extent your comment is accurate at all, Occupy remain independent and the TEA-Party came pre-captured by establishment interests.

Item: The TEA-Party continues to enjoy mass media support, vast funding and has elected many national politicians. The Occupy movement was savagely stamped out in a long series of hideously violent, vengeful police actions co-ordinated by the FBI in conjunction with business lobbies. That is not what co-option looks like, is it? And it is certainly nothing like the TEA-Party.

The two movements are totally dissimilar, largely because Occupy actualy were what the TEA-Party spun themselves as; a popular movement in the interests of the commonality. That's why the TEA-Party got funded by rich people and Occupy got tear-gassed and stuck in jail.
I gather Chris is an occupier?
written by pete, March 03, 2013 3:52
Tea party was most definitely co-opted. When a few of their chosen won a couple of elections, the leaders like Mitch Mcconnel figured out how to bring them in without pissing them off. Same thing happened to the Occupiers. Where is the outrage when Jack Lew is treasurer...only the few who have not been brought in Like Bernie Sanders and a few republicans stand out. Why arent the occupiers occupying the treasury demaning the stopping of the revolving door?

Occupiers have their backers...like Soros and friends, and hollywood.

Basically stated goals were the same until they were co-opted, and that is exactly the point. BOth were originally anti-government. Some folks still are, but many are co-opted and think we just need "better" regulation, not less. Fools. That's the beginning of capture.
Pete: I most certainly am not!
written by Chris Naden, March 04, 2013 4:42
Tea party was most definitely co-opted.

I disagree; the evidence I have seen (Ezra Klein did a good post on this, and there were long pieces in both Rolling Stone and the WaPo over the last couple of years) says that the TEA-Party was captured by the Koch/AEI/Heritage/Chik-fil-A wing of the GOP before it started. Koch and AEI money and 'consultants' were there from the very first days of the movement, and only became more involved over time.

Occupiers have their backers...like Soros and friends, and hollywood.

Backers, as in supporters. Not as in money-men, and not as in bosses. I have never seen a single report of Soros actually doing a damn thing for Occupy, beyond saying they had a point. That's the difference. You never saw Occupy getting talking-points updates from House Democrats, but you saw the TEA-Party message being shaped directly by Heritage and ALEC. The TEA-Party have never been anti-government; they were anti-Obama, anti-black guy winning an election, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, but not anti-government. Think about it; how can a movement dominated by retirees collecting Social Security ever be seriously anti-government? Compare and contrast with the original Zuccotti Park Occupation, and its followers; the vast majority of people there were people who had directly suffered from the greed of the Great Moderation, and genuinely wanted somthing to change. Now if they'd ever been able to agree on what, they might have got somewhere ;)

At the intellectual level, the TEA-Party has and has always had clear, pre-defined remedies and outcomes it campaigns for (lower taxes on the rich; get the black guy out of the White House; we hate Mexicans, etc.) It just has absolutely nothing close to a good argument for why they should be adopted. The Occupy movement had a very solid case underpinning it's campaign, but never quite managed to arrive at any remedies or policy proposals that were anything other than hand-wavey. Which of those sounds like a movement captured and run by Beltway professionals?

Basically stated goals were the same until they were co-opted

Not even remotely close to true. The stated goals of the TEA-Party are; Barack Obama should achieve nothing. Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim communist. Barack Obama should not be elected. Barack Obama was not elected. Rich people should not be taxed. The poor are immoral, and the South shall Rise Again! Lynching chairs and rattlesnake talk-radio hucksters.

Occupy had a very different narrative, and a very different set of goals (or rather, goal; try to prevent the triumph of another Guilded Age, and claw back some of the obscene fortunes made by the Robber Barons who broke the global economy. They failed.) You can see very, very clearly the difference between the two, and the extent to which each is a captive of the Establishment: how often were TEA-party rallies tear-gassed, assaulted with batons, shoved in jail without heart or asthma medication for up to two days, fined, harrassed, surrveilled, bugged, and in a number of cases spuriously accused of terrorism?

The Washington Establishment (GOP brand) has made damn sure the TEA-Party are protected at every stage. The Washington Establishment (both parties) helped co-ordinate with Wall Street to violently crush Occupy. Which of those sounds like a captured movement to you?

I'm not an Occupier. I'm sympathetic to their original goals, and I loved the poli-sci natural experiement in governance strategies, but they never got from shouting to planning or negotiating. They never made the step up from protest to politics, and have now effectively dissappeared from the map. Had they managed to survive the beatings and harrassments and keep finding new civil-disobedience methods, what you might call the Gandhi or MLK model, then I might have become an Occupier; but the closest thing to an Occupy movement now is a crowd-sourced campaign to provide debt relief to suffering mortgage-holders. They are effectively a movement of the past; but what happened is still what happened.

Suggesting that the TEA-Party and Occupy are two sides of the same political expression is both disingenuous and aggressively misleading; as classic an example as one can find of 'false equivalence' reporting.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.