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Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Vision Thing

Kevin Drum has an excellent post "What Democrats Stand For" which takes off from the observation of David Adesnik in "What Democrats Believe"

A few months ago, Kos wrote:

Ask 10 people what the Democrats stand for, and you'll get 10 different answers. Ask me what the Democrats stand for, and I'll stare back speechless.

Yet in our focus group, almost every answer was exactly the same. The purpose of the Democratic party is to help the poor and the disadvantaged.

Adesnik asks how can Democrats win elections, since most Americans don't think they are poor or disadvantaged and are less inclined to wax altruistic as the Ivy league activists in the focus group.

Keven Drum has a candidate answer. Increased inequality implies increased risk for the currently middle class. More and more Americans have reason to fear that, without state intervention, they might be poor in the future. This means that the Democrats can use the old dodge of achieving massive transfers to the poor as a side effect of social insurance.

Drum has a point. After all such fear has always been a key reason for support for policies which help the poor and disadvantaged. The programs which have done most for the poor and disadvantaged are untargeted programs, such as social security pensions, which are very popular.

I have long suspected that the apparent lack of Democratic party vision, the tendency to wonkishness and a focus on the details of policy, is based above all on trying to hide the true vision "we should help the poor and disadvantaged" of the Democratic party from the voters. Oddly some younger Democrats seem not to believe that they are hiding their true beliefs and really care about designing effective policies for agreed goals.

I think the idea of presenting anti-poverty programs as social insurance is as excellent as it was when Lasalle came up with it (as shown by the fact that Bismark stole the idea). Roughly the idea is to hide transfers to the poor amid payments to all including the non poor. Most people aren't actuaries and don't calculate ex ante expected transfers. If there is a huge unmet demand for insurance (as their is) most people's approach is reasonable.

I have other suggestions. If our aim is to take from the non poor and give to the poor, we can gain popular support by careful choice of the non poor from whom to take. Roughly I would say that, just as it is useful to hide transfers to the poor amid payments to the non poor it is very useful to uhm soak the rich and spread it out thin.

So for example a plan "let's keep (reinstate) the inheritance tax but keep the money away from the spendthrifts in congress by dividing it equally as refundable tax credits for each child" The is take from the very poor and give equally to everyone under 18. It would be a big increase in income for poor families.

I think the utter hysteria with which Republicans shriek "class war" shows how afraid they are of this approach. I happen to think it is the best policy as well, but I am sure it is great politics. Clearly "take equally from all non poor and give to the poor" appeals only to the altruism of the majority, which election after election has shown to be not strong enough to win on. "Take from the rich and give equally to the non rich" is a winner. The upper tail of the income distribution is a Mt Everest. There is gold in that hill.

Now this has been tried (more or less) and it wasn't a big hit politically. I am talking about the Clinton tax increase which took 85% of the revenue gains from the riches 1 %. I think the problem was that 85% is less than 100%. If he had taken 110% of the revenue increase from the richest 2 % and distributed the rest as a fixed (refundable) credit to be calculated as the last line on the 1040, then Al Gore could have claimed he invented the internet and the computer and the slide rule and he would still have won.

Matt Yglesias never tires of pointing out another way to help the poor and win elections. Do something to help over worked moms. Something like a serious refundable child care credit or day care voucher. The reasons this helps the poor is first a fixed credit is much larger compared to the income of the poor and second (and less importants) single moms are especially overworked and they and their children are most of the poor.

Speaking of single moms, I think there is a huge opportunity to help the poor and win the votes of cultural conservatives. I don't know any "family values" types, but I think it is very likely that the people who are driving them wild are runaway dads. I think this explains the magical power of the word "family." Irresponsible fathers are also a major source of poverty in the USA. Cracking down on them could help their poor children and the abandoned mothers of those children. It also is a way for standing up for traditional values etc. Everyone except the runaway dads themselves should support such a policy. So why isn't it done ?

Partly it was done some by the Clinton administration. The tools are simple and available now that people have stopped pretending to believe in federalism and are willing to give up some privacy. A big part of the problem is caused by divorced men who don't pay child support. This can be solved by tracking them via the social security administration and subtracting the support from their paychecks. The is federalizing a state responsibility and asking big brother to help his little brothers. The past 5 years have shown that these arguments against the program are made hypocritically and that there is much less sincere support for federalism or privacy than has always been imagined.

I think one problem is that feminists are big on privacy and this prevents them from screaming that dad's better not try to keep their income and wealth private from the mothers of their children.

Also one of the least popular programs ever is the legal services corporation but what if it had a special branch to help women with child support and paternity cases.

I think this addresses the root cause of social conservativism all by fighting to take money from relatively rich dads and give it to their relatively poor children.

Why don't I hear about it all the time ?

Maybe the dead beat dad interest group is small but they know exactly who they are and they vote on this issue alone. I don't know.

In sum you want to help the poor. Your fellow citizens aren't so enthusiastic. Find ways to help the poor as a side effect of popular policies. Finding the policies is easy.

Class war update: I just got an informative spam at my hotmail account. From Spambot Bruce A. Berman with the subject "what the super rich don't want you to know" clicked to an ad that said "earn $5,000, 10,000 or even $ 15,000 a month or more". Note the hostility towards the super rich. Note also that the super rich seem to be interested in rather small incomes for such super rich people. I actually misread at first, since I would assume a scammer would promise an increase of $5,000 a month, but no income of $ 5,000 a month is enough to make some people salivate. The idea that over $ 15,000 a month makes you super rich shows a bit of naivite' about the upper tail of the income distribution which is as useful for political spin as for con jobs.

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