Sometimes Too Much Agreement is the Worst of All

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59 Responses

  1. Avatar Don Zeko says:

    I certainly agree that Dems ought to be more willing to raise taxes on a larger slice of the electorate, but doesn’t your discussion of the Individual Mandate undermine that point somewhat? After all, many of the real taxes included in that bill, particularly the excise tax on high-deductible plans, affect much more than the top 3% and have already been enacted into law.Report

    • Avatar Anderson in reply to Don Zeko says:

      Per the individual mandate, I think the reason the Dems were so reluctant to call it a “tax” was that it would break the President’s promise to not raise taxes on the middle class. In reality it might act like a tax, but Dems were very, very scared of the electoral consequences of that word. Mandate doesn’t sound great, but the t-word…uh oh.

      As for the other taxes…I don’t much about the excise tax on high-deductible plans, you’ll have to explain more. I thought the fact that there was a minimum benefits standard for all insurance plans led to an implicit attack on high-deductible plans? But think about the other taxes in the bill: medical device makers, tanning salons, high-income Medicare enrollees, investment income, “Cadillac plans”, etc…They might affect middle class folks down the supply chain, but there was a VERY conscience effort to expand healthcare without explicitly raising taxes on anyone but corporations, the odd interest group (tanning salons), or wealthier folks. Even if if would have made the plan even more deficit-neutral.Report

  2. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Great post Anderson.

    Legislation like this is always frightening because of what it demonstrates about the unreasonablness of our politics. It reminds me of the Presidential coins debacle from not too long ago.

    And yet I don’t see it as a problem so much with populist politics, but rather co-opted populist politics.

    The logic of the must-vote-for-this-bill mentality is to me, as follows:

    The american worker is getting squeezed due to outsourcing both to other countries, and too machines/computers.

    American workes are thus scared, afraid, uncertain of their economic future.

    Let’s capitalize on that by making them feel like we’re doing something populist (only pay for flags made by American workers!) as well encouraging their retreat into nationalist patriotism (yay American flags made by Americans in America to demonstrate that we are American!)

    It’s a politcs of illusion, and it is to reality tv what the events on reality tv are to reality.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      Ethan, the problem is much deeper than you think. Rational choice theory predicts that the populace will prefer comforting falsehoods over discomforting truths. That means that populism will always cause problems. Wishing for a better kind of populism is like wishing that people were completely altruistic. It is unrealistic*. Politicians will always, if it is beneficial to them, try to not just capitalise on misinformation and jingoism but actively participate in its spread if it would benefit them. The more that a politician’s job security depends on public opinion, the more incentive he has to take advantage of people’s tendency to prefer comforting falsehoods and engage in jingoism.

      *Admittedly credible alternatives to democracy are difficult to come by but if we have a democracy symposium, I’ve got a post or 2 on the issue.Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach in reply to Murali says:

        There must be an element that exists now that didn’t before though.

        Perhaps this his historical revisionism, but I feel like there use to be labor populism that was seen as legitimate, where as now that populism has been split by racial/cultural/nationalist fault lines.

        So instead of asking, why as a worker aren’t I doing better, populism devolves into attacking other populist groups: immigrants, non-Christians, minorities.

        This is extremely problematic because there is a legitimate kind of populism, the kind for instance, that would was pushing either against TARP, or for a TARP that addressed mortgage debt rather than bank dept. Both of those movements were easily dipersed though because of cultural, racial, and nationalistic fault lines.

        If conservative populists and liberal populists could actually work together on something, they wouldn’t be so easily dismissed, but technocratic oligarchs on both sides have succeeded in making sure none of the those peons 1. never form a strong unified center and so as a result are 2. never taken seriously.Report

    • Avatar Anderson in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      “politics of illusion”…I like that phrase. With the recent debacle about American olympic uniforms being made in China (which I should’ve brought up in the OP too), I think it’s the politicians generating American angst that didn’t originally exist. It’s not like the average family in America is gathering around the dinner table and wringing their hands about Ralph Lauren using Chinese labor for their ‘absolutely fabulous’ uniforms. Of course, outsourcing in general demurs alot of people, but is giving a press conference to address this ‘urgent issue’ really expressing what the American people feel? Or is it, like you said, living out a reality tv show of what it ‘should’ feel like to be an American?Report

  3. Avatar Will Truman says:

    A long time ago, I used to be one of those “Yay bipartisanship!” people. Then I started looking at the things the two parties were working together on. That changed my perspective.

    As to your question, pot is what comes to mind and you already mentioned that. I’ll put my mind to it and see if I come up with something else.Report

  4. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Side note: is the right margin ad floating out of place for anyone else? Also, is there a search bar somewhere still, ARG! I still can’t find it.Report

  5. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    This is a brilliant post.

    I think one characteristic of all of the issues you mention is that they are marked by an apparently willful inattention to tradeoffs. Every policy choice has a cost. Hell, every choice has a cost.

    But here, many people don’t want to be seen comparing these costs to these benefits; the costs and benefits here are divided by moral boundaries that we don’t usually like to see crossed.

    Help Israel? Great! Israel is glorious and inspiring!* (But at what dollar cost to us? And at what cost in American lives? And at what cost in foreign lives?)

    Ban marijuana? Great! Marijuana is creepy, countercultural stuff. (But we ban it at a cost — to the people who use it, whose lives aren’t easily considered comparable to our own.)

    Raise taxes on the rich? Great! But let’s not stop to consider that by not raising taxes on the merely upper-middle-class, we have effectively foreclosed balancing the budget. At least with all the other spending that we refuse to touch.

    And so forth. It’s a problem of mixing up categories that people like to keep separate.

    *I mean that sincerely. I like Israel a lot.Report

    • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      Agreed on all the substantive points. The weird thing, to me is that marijuana isn’t creepy, countercultural stuff: it’s stuff most adults have enough acquaintance with to be entirely comfortable with. Even if you don’t use it yourself (or haven’t for decades), you know people that do use it who aren’t a threat to anyone, and whom you’d be horrified to see prosecuted for drug use. And still, when the Obama administration raids medical marijuana providers, we know that they’re pandering. But I’m damned if I know whom they’re pandering to.Report

      • Avatar dexter in reply to MikeSchilling says:

        Mike, If you want to know who President Obama is pandering to with his marajuana policy, then you need to follow the money.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to MikeSchilling says:

        I wrote about this below.

        Upper-middle class white adults can smoke Marijuana without impunity. They might make the odd noise towards legalization now and then but their liberty is not being threatened so why bother too much.

        You are right that these people would be horrified to see their friends being prosecuted but their friends are not being prosecuted. Poor minorities are being prosecuted and even if that is not okay, it is not too much of a concern to someone in the suburbs. Perhaps, unconsciously, they think it is good.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to NewDealer says:

          Well, I see lots of low-income whites being prosecuted for it where I live as well, but I take your point.Report

          • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Fair enough. I should have said low-income people in general are usually the ones who suffer from the War on Drugs.

            There are exceptions but they tend to be few and far between and always have a show feel to them. The sentences are often much lighter as well. The most recent examples I can think of are the busting of the Columbia University Cocaine ring (most of the arrested dealers were upper-middle class suburban kids) and a woman who recently wrote a memoir about her year in prison because she inadvertently helped out with an international drug ring after she graduated from a college like Smith. She had a post-college rebellious year and dated a woman. Then she went back to normal life but got caught somehow and plead for a year in minimum security. Said woman went back to her job as being an executive at a high-profile non-profit.Report

            • Avatar BobbyC in reply to NewDealer says:

              This is a great point on the War on Drugs. It is a national insanity.

              Basically people like me are willing to sit idly by as the privileges of citizenship are shared unequally. I don’t know many people who have police in their neighborhoods looking to make arrests. Am I going to advocate openly for marijauna legalization? What CEO is going to make headlines supporting marijuana legalization? What politician who is not already viewed as radical wants to be known as “out front” on drug law liberalization? The reality is that we have chicken-shit leaders, elites, and business leaders.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer in reply to BobbyC says:

                I think things are slowly changing in the Democratic party. Very slowly though:

                There are individual Congresspeople who advocate for legalization. There was also a Democratic Congressional primary recently where war on drugs rhetoric failed and the pro-Reform Democratic candidate won his primary race. I think this was in Texas.

                Though Kevin Drum brings up a tragic but interesting point on Marijuana legalization and International law today:


                But you are right about the cynicism. The war on drugs is nothing but a war against the poor. In the case of Mexicans, it is simple murder.Report

              • Avatar BobbyC in reply to NewDealer says:

                You’d at least think that Obama, a constitutional law professor and once-upon-a-time user of cannibis, would make it a state’s rights issue. Then again that’s not his style, ie a federalist sensibility, or exhibiting leadership, or using power to enact change, or putting principle over politics.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer in reply to BobbyC says:

                I think Obama is practicing real-politik and worried about how the kulturkamph right-wing is going to trash him considering:

                1. He has admitted to smoking pot and snorting cocaine.

                2. He is black.

                If he wins reelection, we shall see how he acts.Report

              • Avatar BobbyC in reply to NewDealer says:

                Optimistic about a politics-free Obama in the 2nd term, eh? I’m sticking to the idiom “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” At work, we engage in “stop-loss” to limit the damage from any particular poor decision. This practice would have applied to Obama around when he decided it was a good idea to let Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi draft the stimulus bill.Report

            • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:

              My comment is not to be read that lesbianism is unusual. However it was part of the woman’s rebellious year. At the time of her arrest and jailing, her male fiancee (or husband) was an utterly conventional member of the upper-middle class.

              And I think there is no way I can talk about this without digging my grave further.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

          That might explain why people are indifferent to legalization, but not why they favor a beefed-up War on Drugs. Thanks for all the ideas, but I don’t feel like anyone’s hit a satisfying answer yet.Report

          • Avatar BobbyC in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Americans are puritanical. Much of the culture demonized drugs for a long time. I recall crazy stuff in the D.A.R.E. classes I took as a sixth grader. And old people don’t like drugs. And authorities are inclined to set goals and grow budgets iteratively. Criminalization itself creates much of the stigma – drugs are what criminals are involved in. That’s a powerful condemnation and creates much of the animus as well as the motivation to eradicate the problem. Americans like eradicating problems with massive effort. It’s a narrative which suits us.Report

      • Avatar Anderson in reply to MikeSchilling says:

        I think alot of people still have negative perceptions of marijuana. Granted, the issue has gotten much closer than in the past, but I don’t think the average person in this country is down with the reefer (polling maybe, help?) If you’re like me and surround yourself with lots of young, casual drug users, it’s easy for all of us to get around and complain about how dumb it is that pot’s illegal. But we’re also not the voting base for most politicians, and many older folks still have antiquated (if not outright wrong) views on pot that aren’t getting dislodged at this point.

        Nothing there is to take away from my point that marijuana’s prohibition is an example of bad bipartisanship; it’s just that politicians would rather follow their polling than lead on a side issue like this. Which is a damn shame. Alas, give the economy some time to recover and some generational turnover and I can see this shifting out of my “bad politics” category in the next 20 years.Report

        • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Anderson says:

          Andrew Sullivan publishes info showing that somewhere around 50 percent of the electorate favors legalization or decriminalization at least.Report

        • Avatar BobbyC in reply to Anderson says:

          I saw the Capital Steps, a DC comedy/satire troupe, perform in NYC last year. They went after both parties and plenty of celebrities. It was occasionally funny. The audience was old. Medicare old. When it came time to make fun of libertarians, they just made marijuana jokes. It was awful – all these old people were laughing at jokes premised on the fact that libertarians are basically potheads. I was so disappointed. I’d assumed that the culture was way closer to legalization than they appear to be. And the reality of both old-person ignorance on marijuana coupled with old-person voting turnout probably explains much of the inertia.

          The one bright spot is what we just saw happen in the last two decade on gay rights – that was fast (and not thanks to Obama!). If you had told me 2oyrs ago that we’d see the conservative criticism of allowing gays to serve openly in the military change from “the military will become dysfunctional” in 1992 to “the President is just doing this for political reasons” in 2012, I’d have laughed at you. It’s pretty awesome that their complaint really was, in substance, “he’s just letting gays serve our country because it’s such a popular policy nowadays.” Awesome.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I don’t think that the parties view Marijuana as creepy, countercultural stuff completely. Rather Marijuana and other drugs reveal the greatest hypocrisies and moral failures of American life.

      There are plenty of Democratic voters who smoke Marijuana and do other drugs on a regular basis.

      There are plenty of Republican voters who smoke Marijuana and do other drugs on a regular basis.

      What these two groups have in common is that they are white and middle class or above. They partake from the safety of the suburban subdivision. The DEA is not staging raids at 2 in the morning in these neighborhoods.

      There might be some Democratic politicians who still fear being tarred for being soft on crime or a dirty hippie for supporting reform and legalization but that is changing. Perhaps the Republicans still have a large base that has never smoked Marijuana and would bring back prohibition if they could, aren’t a lot of counties still dry in the South?

      The fact is that the status quo is quite evil and even pro-legalization people do not feel the need to do much because most of them are white and upper-middle class and can smoke Marijuana without fear of punishment.Report

    • Avatar M.A. in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      The ban on marijuana was mostly a racist attack against “Mexicans” and Blacks.

      Mexicans because it was advertised as a “great evil being brought up through the Southern border”, much like it is today.

      Blacks because it was still the age when anti-miscegenation laws were in vogue in the racist South. From Hearst himself, “Marijuana influences Negroes to look White people in the eye, step on a White man’s shadow and look at a White woman twice.

      It is impossible to separate the racism from the laws against marijuana, just as it is impossible to separate the racism from the federal sentencing disparities between crack (mostly used by blacks) cocaine and powder (mostly used by rich whites) cocaine.Report

  6. Avatar dexter says:

    Jason, If you have the time and inclination I would like to know why you ” like Israel a lot”.
    Also very good post and it’s very easy to agree with all you said.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to dexter says:

      I like Israel a lot because it’s a liberal democracy. Its founding is astonishing and inspiring to me.

      My affinity isn’t without reservation, of course. The occupation needs to end. Somehow. But given Israel’s neighbors and its often very dire circumstances, I could easily see a state doing vastly worse.Report

  7. No healthcare reform proposal can in any way lead to any patients getting any less of anything.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      Oh, absolutely. It’s only the patients that currently don’t get enough of everything who will get *more* of most of those things.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        You may say, “But how do you make more health care to give to these new people that currently don’t have enough?”… but the obvious responses to that are:

        (1) Eliminate waste and fraud by
        (a) Rub some technology on it
        (b) Rub some American Ingenuity on it
        (2) You’re only saying that because you hate poor people, or America.Report

  8. Avatar BobbyC says:

    This is an outstanding post. It objects to that which is objectionable, while reminding us not to get hysterical about where America is relative to other nations.

    You list 4 one-sided policy issues – taxes, military benefits, the security state, and drug policy. Of these, I think drug policy is the most ridiculously bad-for-America policy. The security state and military benefits are the most easily explainable, ie we understand well why policy will lean too far in a particular direction. Only tax policy do I see as an area where there are substantive points – practical, normative and theoretical – in favor of vastly different policy options.

    On the military, how dare you think that not every single one of the 1.5m active military personnel is a hero. Did you know that tens of thousands of veterans get $1000/mo for having sleep apnea? Next you’ll be questioning whether there isn’t a bit of fraud going on! Some people …

    On taxes, I favor funding govt via consumption taxes (w/ a deductible or similarly a minimum income). This reflects by preference for long-term prosperity, my comfort with private control of resources, and my dislike of the incentives inherent in taxing either labor or capital.
    If you rule out a consumption tax as impractical, then next I favor a wealth tax. Pretty much the worst option is a complicated use of the tax system to incentivize behavior, while making a mess of distinguishing income vs capital accumulation vs consumption vs investment vs wealth accumulation. This is the root cause of the kerfuffle over private equity funds recharacterizing their labor income as capital gains – our tax system is more of an evolved organic jumble than a thoughtful construction.

    You asked what other areas have horrid policy. My bete noire is the patchwork regulations governing financial services. Of all the theories floated to explain the financial crisis, and setting aside the utter humanity of the whole affair, I am convinced that the differential regulation of various parts of the financial system – some rules for commercial banks, some for broker-dealers, others for Europeans, yet others for Asians, and still other rules for insurance companies and pensions – was THE deep cause of the financial crisis. Risk moved to where the disparate capital rules allowed it to earn the highest return on regulatory capital. Nearly all of the misallocations of capital and ugly symptoms of mixed capitalism during the buildup can be seen through this lens – mortgage debt, the role of rating agencies, the proliferation of credit default swaps and CDOs, the mispricing of corporate debt in LBOs (leading to whole companies being sold to new owners), the downfall of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie, Freddie and AIG, the absurd role of money market funds, the collectivization of national savings in the Federal Reserve System, and the proliferation of OTC derivatives which exacerbates if not creates the modern problem of too-big-to-fail.

    The other ridiculous policy area that comes to mind is immigration – we make it so hard for the smartest people on Earth to immigrate to the US. If someone wanted to give us gold or a factory or an airplane, would we make it crazy hard to donate capital to the US? Then why make it so hard for a talented human to locate here and support our society with full citizenship status? A talented person is worth more to our society than gold.Report

    • Avatar Anderson in reply to BobbyC says:

      The thing on taxes is that there is lots of discussion and debate in the intellectual circles bout VAT’s, taxing consumption vs income vs wealth, etc. But I just haven’t seen it in the actual political sphere. I get the impression that talking about a national sales tax (ala Mitch Daniels) is DOA in the political scene; with Repubs b/c it’s a tax and with Dems b/c it’s regressive. Every tax policy expert agrees our system is a maddening potpourri, but what politician has the balls to end the big loopholes: exclusion of employer healthcare premiums (notably the ACA makes a start on this, but it’s still a long ways from ending), 401(k) and pension contributions, mortgage interest, charity, state and local tax deductions, etc ( I hope I’m wrong on this in the long run, but, as of right now, I see 100% agreement across the parties to not explicitly raise any revenue from the middle class in any way, shape, or form.

      I’d love to hear more about your views on financial regulation (guest post perhaps?) and the crisis of ’08, it sounds slightly different than the many accounts I’ve read. I can’t quite tell if your MO is that we should of had a more uniform system of national–or international–regulation, that we should have had “less” regulation (always a tricky phrase), or just that certain regulations led to unintended incentives…Again, I’d like to hear more.

      Immigration generates much more divisiveness amongst our pols too than the other issues I mentioned IMO. On the issue you mentioned, for example, there have been definite efforts to keep talented students/inventors/businessfolk with an easier visa/green card process. Coming along slowly, but the will is there in both parties (

      What to do about the rest of the immigrants (not the wealthy, investing ones), however, is a whole other bag of worms. Lot more resentment and bitterness on that issue.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I don’t know if it’s a populist legislative trend or not, but I remember the outcry a few years back when they were talking about getting rid of Saturday mail service in the states- something that I can’t think of another country that still has- and you’d think they were talking about rationing food or something. It made me very fearful that the government will be able to do anything at all to deal with its structural deficit. On the other hand, I didn’t find out how it panned out. Maybe you made the cut.Report

    • Avatar Anderson in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Yeah, jeez, I thought we got rid of that? Maybe not. But I did a quick google news on the issue and one of the first things to pop up was a NYT article proclaiming “most American support plan to suspend Saturday delivery.” It then went on to talk about the President, House Republicans, and the Postmaster General himself have agreed on this issue. The main people who disagree are newspapers (surprise) and mail-order pharmacies. (

      Post Office politics are rather interesting though. Definitely an area where other countries have privatized and/or modernized at a far higher rate than the supposedly free-market-heaven of America. It’s crazy how little autonomy USPS has too. Their leaders have basically had to beg Congress to allow them to fix their own pensions, delivery days, postal centers, fees, etc.Report

  10. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    “Apparently the news that China supplies millions of dollars worth of American flags every year would not, could not stand in the halls of power.”

    There’s a sort of historical irony to the fact that the country that most embraces free market capitalism and liberal democracy is getting so much of its goods to sell in the market via the labor force of an authoritarian communist country. But, as markets have historically carried a lot of liberal ideas with them, I’d bet on China being affected more over the long term than the US. Certainly, the answer would not be for the US to make its markets less free in response. Actually, they should respond by selling American-printed copies of Mao’s Little Red Book over there.Report

  11. Avatar James K says:

    Excellent Post Anderson. As far as untouchable policy positions goes I would add protectionism and restricting international trade generally, though of course the US is hardly unique in that view.Report