The Bi-Partisan Budget Deal

The recent bi-partisan budget deal continues the recent trend of eviscerating the legacy of the New Deal and destroying a social contract in which citizens of the world’s wealthiest country have a floor under them to support and boost them.

It is worth recalling in this context that both political parties have moved substantially to the right since 1981. What used to be called Republicans (say, in the Eisenhower through Carter era) are now Democrats on major policy points, and today’s Republicans are now far to the right of their conservative forebears.

In important respects, we no longer have a right-v.-left political spectrum, nor even a right-v.-center; instead we have the right and the far-right in power, with the center now being referred to as the left. Policy outcomes reflect this.

The result is the continued smashing of the Progressive Era and 1960s-70s legacy of gains for the middle class and the poor.

The 1% effectively dominate much of the policy-making process. One easy way to track this is to take a look at tax rates. Under Eisenhower, the 1% paid a top marginal tax rate of over 90% (see here, here, here). And they were still rolling in it. Today, Mitt Romney and other one-percenters pay 14% or less. This is because they are the ones effectively writing policy, so of course they give themselves a break.

Another way to chart who controls policy is to see whose opinions get reflected in policy outcomes. This is pretty easy to ascertain, since there is plenty of data on the subject.

Take the research presented in by political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker in their book Winner-Take-All Politics. The passage below offers a key summary. The take-away: if you are rich, the politicians have your back, your voice counts; if you are poor, the politicians do the opposite of what you want them to, your interests being inversely proportional to their policy. Here is the relevant excerpt:

This erosion [collective organization among ordinary voters] has … dramatically undermined voters’ confidence in government and politicians, especially in their sense that elected officials are looking out for their interests. Trust in government has plummeted, and cynicism about the effectiveness of the representative process has grown. In the mid-1960s, less than a third of Americans agreed that “government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” Over the last couple decades, more than two-thirds have. In 2008, the share was more than 70 percent.

These polls reflect an underlying reality. New research by political scientists suggests that there is plenty of reason to question the clout of ordinary voters, especially those who have most clearly been on the losing end. Two professors working separately at Princeton University, Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens, have been studying the correspondence between what politicians do and what their constituents of differing economic backgrounds say they want them to do in opinion polls. Are the opinions of wealthier Americans more likely to be heard and heeded than those of less affluent Americans?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. But the scale of the disparity may shock those used to thinking that everyone’s opinion counts. Bartels looked at how closely aligned with voters. US senators were on key votes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It turns out there is a pretty high degree of congruence between senators positions and the opinions of their constituents–at least when those constituents are in the top third of the income distribution. For constituents in the middle third of the income distribution, the correspondence is much weaker, and for those in the bottom third, it is actually negative. (Yes, when the poorest people in a state support a policy their senator is less likely to vote on it.) … Senators may pledge to represent everyone in a state, but they do not, Bartels’s analysis suggests, represent them equally–or sometimes at all.

Gilens took Bartels’s investigation a step further. In a truly mammoth research undertaking, he collected almost two thousand survey questions fielded since the early 1980s that ask people to say whether they wanted government policy to change. Then he looked at whether government policy actually did change. Like Bartels, Gilens did not just look at people in general, but broke the population down into income groups. Did it make a difference, Gilens asked, whether a policy ahd storng support among the poor, the middle class, or the well off (income greater than 90% of the population).

It turns out, it makes a huge difference. Most policy changes with majority support didn’t become law …. But they only stood a good chance fo becoming law, Gilens found, when they were supported by those at the top. When the opinions of the poor diverged from those of the well-off, the opinions of hte poor ceased to ahve any apparent influence: If 90% of poor Americans supported a policy change, it was no more likely to happen than in 10% did. By contrast, when more of the well-off supported a change, it was substantially more likely to happen.

But what about the middle class? They did not fare much better than the poor when their opinions departed from those of the well-off. … When median-income people strongly supported a policy change, ti had hardly any greater chance of becoming law than when they strongly opposed it. … Whether or not elected officials and other decision makers ‘care’ about middle-class Americans, influence over actual policy outcomes appears to be reserved almost exclusively for those at the top of the income distribution. (pp. 111-112).

See also the analysis of David Cay Johnston, who claims unequivocally that “there is a war going on in this country and it is a war on the poor” (Democracy Now).

[Responding to fact that, according to the interviewer, “the vast majority of House members from both parties approved the two-year budget agreement last week (Dec. 2013) in a 332-to-94 vote”]:

Well, this deal is a—actually, I think, a big win for the Paul Ryan Republicans. They will avoid the embarrassment, shame and political damage of shutting down the government, and they will obtain this from the—they obtained this from the Democrats without, as Congressman Pocan pointed out in his statement, touching at all the major issues. The corporate loopholes aren’t being closed. The tax-avoidance techniques of billionaires, who can legally live tax-free if they choose to, are not being shut down. The hedge fund and private equity managers will continue to be advantaged. And we’re going to kick 57,000 poor children out of Head Start, which means we’re going to narrow their economic futures

… the Pentagon is getting an extra $20 billion out of this deal. We already spend 42 percent of all the money in the world on our military. More money for the Pentagon? Seriously? While we are cutting off unemployment benefits and cutting medical research, reducing pensions for federal workers? This makes absolutely no sense. It will make us worse off.

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