Public Policy Positions Matter
The choice before us in November is between a lottery and a cooperative.
I have a little rule in my head about advertising, especially when I see it on TV. If I see something advertised I assume that I don’t need it. Cap’n’Crunch cereal? I don’t need it. McDonald’s? I’ve eaten there twice in the past ten years. Charmin toilet paper? I don’t need cute animated bears to help me form an opinion about toilet paper. Ew. A political ad? I’ll do my own research, thank you.
Across social media, there is a heated debate targeting people who support Bernie Sanders. That debate is really a plea to Sanders’ supporters, urging them to support Joe Biden now that Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign.
Joe Biden is not my choice. I would have picked any of the other candidates before picking Joe Biden. But for better or worse, he’s managed to secure a good lead in the delegate counts with little apparent effort. There are numerous arguments against Joe Biden that have been exhaustively reviewed and that I won’t go into here. To me, none of those arguments matter except with respect to public policy positions.
Identity politics is dead. I am repeating this here because I think that idea requires reinforcement. I oppose Donald Trump for the policy positions he promotes. I support Bernie Sanders for the policy positions that he promotes. To the extent that Joe Biden promotes the same policies that Bernie has been promoting, I can support Joe, too. I don’t really identify with any of those people, but I am clear about the public policy choices they promote. For people steeped in identity politics, this can be confusing.
Let me frame an analogy that may help people understand identity politics. Many people have played the song, “Every Breathe You Take” by The Police at their weddings. Most people don’t really understand the song until they have seen interviews of Sting talking about that song, and in those interviews, Sting has said that song is about control, not romance. Once the context is understood, that song doesn’t sound so very romantic. In this election, we are missing the intention and focusing on the familiar person. That’s identity politics.
I can look past all of Joe’s baggage because I don’t identify with Joe. I don’t like Joe. I’m not like Joe. I don’t sit at the same table as Joe. I don’t frequent the same social circles as Joe. I don’t really know Joe. And I don’t hate him or like him. But I am keen to know the public policy positions he supports. Here is where Bernie lends a hand.
Joe may be a “coalition builder” but his coalition-building has had the tendency to drag the country to the right. We’ve been moving to the right for more than 40 years now. Look where that got us. Incomprehensible deficits, which Republicans claim to hate. They don’t really seem to mind deficits as long as Donald Trump’s signature is on the checks. Crumbling infrastructure. A near-permanent and poor working-class population with near-zero upward mobility. And an insulated aristocracy with a subgroup of conservative Christians waiting for the Second Coming. I guess they need all that money and political power because they want to look nice when Jesus shows up.
Bernie is helping Joe out by ensuring that at least some of his policies are promoted by Joe and his campaign. He’s helping Joe to build a coalition that will address problems that progressives want to fix.
Joe likes to say that “we’re in a battle for the soul of our country”. Joe is like that. He’s full of vanilla platitudes that go nowhere. I suppose that’s all he can remember, but he’s the presumptive nominee. I just think he’s got that battle for souls wrong. We’re in a battle for the minds of the country. I’m agnostic about souls and their ultimate disposition, but I do know that we all have a mind. I even have some idea of how sharp those minds are.
According to The Hill, Trump raised more than $677 million since he started his 2020 campaign in 2017. Joe Biden has raised just shy of $100 million. As you can see in the numbers alone, there isn’t very much enthusiasm for Joe among his respective supporters. And if we went by numbers alone, Joe doesn’t have a very good chance to win come November. But there is something else. All of this money is for advertising and promotion, and many Americans seem to be easily swayed by advertising.
Here is one example cited by Sheelah Kolhartkar in her article in The New Yorker, How Private Equity Firms Squeeze Hospitals for Profits. In that article, she discusses legislation that would regulate surprise medical billing. She describes an ad opposing surprise billing regulation as follows:
In one, a pair of emergency responders rush a bloody sixteen-year-old strapped to a gurney through the doors of a hospital, only to find that it has closed.
As if regulation of surprise billing would actually force hospitals to close. All we really want is transparency in billing, not rate setting as the health care industry has suggested in their ad. No one wants hospitals to go bankrupt.
Political advertising often takes a complex issue and boils it down to a very simplistic statement that can fit in 30 seconds. What is scary is that many people take these ads at their word without conducting further research. Those same people may be so harried with their lives that they do not have the time or the patience to research the truth of the statements made in political advertising, the source of the ads and who would likely benefit from the public policy outcomes promoted by the ads.
The basic assumption of conservatism, that with hard work, you too can be rich, is flawed. The man who drives a spike into a railroad tie may work hard, but he will never get rich driving spikes. The men who own the railroad are already rich. They worked together and pooled their money to own the railroad. And they may have paid a few people off to ensure that they get the right of way and a large slice of the profits from the business. Business owners also make large contributions to political organizations that can sway minds. But the narrative of hard work and success says nothing about luck. What kind of luck?
How about the luck of having the capacity to succeed? Or being born into a family with connections? How about brains? Here is a typical chart of IQ distribution:
The median IQ is about 100. 15% of people have an IQ of 85% or less. The average IQ of Florida is 98, and that is also the average IQ for America. These numbers are typical across the United States, particularly in the Deep South. There is an apparent correspondence between latitude and IQ as shown by this map:
Most people lack the capacity to work efficiently enough to be wealthy. In fact, I think there is a real controversy as to whether or not anyone can “earn” a billion dollars.
When a person of limited means entertains a conservative philosophy, he’s thinking, hard work = prosperity. But where there is wealth, there is effective or efficient work, or there is multiplied work, and that means running a business. And that means being organized enough to get the business going, hiring employees, dealing with bureaucracy. Not everyone has the brains to run a business.
Many people who start a business fail. Many people who succeed in business have also had other sources of income allowing them to fail many times before getting it right. And not everyone has the brains to start and run a business. There are even very intelligent people who would rather solve more pressing problems than running a business. There are so many factors involved, skill, brains, connections, and the environment, that all combined lead to one really big factor that few conservatives talk about: luck.
The reverse of luck is risk. The opposite of good fortune is bad luck. What the conservative philosophy misses is that not everyone has the good fortune to start and run a business. Not everyone can be lucky enough to be wealthy. More to the point, the rugged individualism promoted by conservatives ignores the entire point of forming a society, a nation, a culture: the point of humans sticking together is to distribute risk so that there is no single point of failure — so that humanity carries on.
This is what I see in the policy positions of Bernie Sanders, and progressives. With progressives, I see an acknowledgment that we are in this together. With conservative politics, I see an attitude that says, “I got mine, Jack. Good luck getting yours.” Conservative politics is about winners and losers, and often, the government chooses the winners. Progressive politics says that we can all win together. Nobody has to die just so a few lucky souls to “make it”.
This difference in attitude is why public policy matters. Republicans don’t want to acknowledge that for every successful millionaire or billionaire, there are hundreds or thousands of hard-working people that helped to make that success happen. Progressives understand that you can still have prosperity without making half of the people in the country work for starvation wages. Progressives understand that in the forest, the trees take care of the floor. And pragmatic people can see that Biden is an empty vessel that Bernie Sander is packing with progressive ideas so that there is a better chance of them becoming law if Biden wins.
In conservative politics, the American Dream is a lottery. In progressive politics, the American dream is a cooperative.