Sunday, August 12, 2007

Liberal? Conservative? Are You Sure? [A Rambling Economic Romp]

One of my students wrote a paper attacking the views of the liberal media, particularly George Will. No, that’s not a typo—that’s what she wrote, and what she meant. I wonder if staunch conservative Will realizes he’s converted. Truth is, the media has become quite conservative—look at FOX news, for example.

Other discussions in both the classroom and the corner store reveal a disturbing reality—people pick their favorite label, then their views. Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative—these seem to be just words divorced from popular policy, and those misunderstandings lead to poor national choices.

Consider the proud Republicans who argue we must protect American jobs from foreign competition. Are they aware this is the Democrats’ position? Republicans would argue for free trade. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) especially seems to be a lightning rod, approved under President Clinton, despite the reality that the pact created ten times the number of jobs as it initially cost, the benefit continuing, the cost history, affected employees the beneficiaries of funding to cover the transition (and that funding exceeded the cost).

The WTO (World Trade Organization) also draws some fire, while other lesser known but important agreements, such as cooperation among the Pacific rim nations, seem to escape the radar. Any introductory macroeconomics text can lay out the well established case that such international trade benefits all parties (see comparative advantage). Why the opposition? More benefits are imported than exported.

At the same time, the same people oppose the United Nations, or any attempt at meaningful international law. So, while importing inexpensive food, clothing, toys, and so forth, we also abdicate the safety standards we trust in the U.S., putting ourselves at risk. Sound counterproductive?

How about fiscal responsibility? Instead of runaway spending and high taxes, we should pay as we go!

Not a Republican position—Reagan quadrupled the national debt, changing the largest creditor nation into the largest debtor nation. Clinton turned that around, generating the largest peacetime expansion in U.S. history, upsetting the conventional hawkish view that expanding economies need a war. Bush brought the U.S. back to both war and burgeoning deficits.

Interestingly, here Democrats and Conservatives agree! Pay for programs, wars as they come. Vice-President Cheney disagrees, claiming “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” That’s like running up your credit card, pretending you’ll never have trouble making payments. It only works so long. As Howard Dean noted, “borrow and spend” isn’t better than the “tax and spend” mantra often leveled.

Think we need to reel in such spending? Great. That’s Republican—until you talk about which programs you want to cut. “Wait! I just want to cut the waste!” You know it’s not as easy as that, right? And I’m sure you know cutting your household spending isn’t as easy as deciding to do it.

Take health care. The U.S. spends more per capita than any nation—yet we’re the only industrial nation without universal health care—25% of Americans uninsured. So what? Their problem? Not when their serious conditions find their way to the emergency room at tax payer expenses instead of cheaper preventions. “Yeah, but universal health care will mean trade-offs!” You don’t think we have trade-offs now? Even if you think we should just abandon those people without means, that will inevitably affect the crime rate for people with no options and nothing less to lose. Fine? More law and order? That costs money too.

Or military spending. The U.S. spends more on the military than any other nation by a fantastic margin. Overkill? What are we really getting for it? Rumsfeld sent us down a path (ignoring Gen. Colin Powell—what the hell does HE know about Iraq…) merely stretching and demoralizing our forces, even causing commissioned officers to quit in droves. That’s money down the drain.

Much of this economic mumbo-jumbo is built on misunderstandings. In the 1920s. Americans benefited from sales to Europe, temporarily ravaged by WWI. It didn’t last, catching up to us in the 1930s. Prosperity returned in the 1950s—selling to a Europe ravaged by WWII, but again, this couldn’t last. In the 1960s, Democrat presidents ran up the deficit, and in the stagflation years of the 1970s, conservative Republican Nixon abolished the gold standard to allow currency to float—and wisely so, to the chagrin of conservatives.

Here’s the thing. We talk about liberals and conservatives, but we inherit these labels and their positions from talk radio instead of thinking for ourselves. Consequently, we even end up voting for the people whose positions we oppose—we just don’t know it.



Writer said...

This obviously isn't finished--sorry about that. But with piles of pressing work here to do instead, I thought I'd at least raise the idea.


Two Write Hands said...

Will wait for the rest. And not to distract you from the pressing work, but have you ever read George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephany? It's brilliant, really.

Two Write Hands said...

Elephant. Sorry.

Writer said...

Got it.

...not so much "the rest," but a realization that this deserves researching the numbers and organizing the approach.

That will take more time than I have this week.