Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Class and the Republican Primaries

I am, fascinated, for lack of a better word, with the hostility I am seeing in many news reports on Santorum when compared to Romney in my usual news sources (currently primarily the Economist and the Washington Post).

The major issue I have in mind is the tendency to dismiss Santorum's appeal as based on social issues while Romney is all about the economy.

The thing is I'm not sure this comparison can be so tightly drawn.  Both seem to share a belief that success is primarily the result of individual effort and merit and that the market is the best way to reward hard work and ability. Both seem to share a scepticism that government can improve upon market outcomes and share a belief that government interference leads to inequality, unfair outcomes, and rewarding the undeserving at the expense of the deserving.  Both feel that the influence of the Federal government has involved a transition away from a traditional American emphasis on individualism and hard work.

These beliefs ultimately involve an interaction of social and economic beliefs.  They also lead to some shared policy preferences, primarily towards low taxes and economic regulations. Both seem to share a belief that lower taxes on employers will help businesses create more jobs.

But here the class* based differences of their supporters begin to appear. Romney reflects his support base in primarily focusing on high earners, low taxes is meant to support rather than punish merit and create incentives to grow and invest.

Santorum takes a different tack, and this reflects his support base. Santorum is aiming his tax cuts primarily at supporting families, his tax breaks largely reflect a fairly common belief that individuals don't need government help and that if they just had a little more money they could afford health care, help their kids in school more, and be under less stress generally.

I could go on down the list of policies, but that would make for too long of a post.  Generally, however, I believe both Romney and Santorum display virtually identical assumptions. Where they differ is in the class based expressions of both philosophies.  Romney displays the beliefs of people who have done fairly well in the current institutional setup, they've prospered, but they could prosper more and believe that this would benefit everyone else as well, they taxes they are paying are worsening, not bettering, other individual's life chances.

Santorum is expressing the same beliefs but from a different perspective.  Working class individuals agree that merit should be rewarded but are troubled by the fact that they are having difficulty paying for health insurance, affording a house where their kids have access to good school, and feel a lack of financial security.  They feel that something has changed in America and that these changes are at least partially the fault of the government and bad incentives.

These two perspectives lead to very different policy prescriptions. In the sources I read, I see a lot of sneering from better off conservatives at the beliefs of the less well-off Santorum supporters.  They tend to give little credence to the views expressed by Santorum.  I find this somewhat surprising, after all, if a working class individual shares beliefs such as the idea that hard work is rewarded, that market outcomes are just and efficient, that government prevents incentives from functioning leading to social dislocation, and that the market works in the interest of everyone why shouldn't they focus on the individual level social issues that conservatives claim determine outcomes? If the poor are poor because they make bad choices, and government intervention leads to more of these bad choices causing taxes to be raised which means they can no longer afford things like health care because they're over taxed why would the working class voter not focus on social issues? Since the social factors that Democrats focus on are anathema to these voters, what has to have changed over the past 30 years that has resulted in families who worked hard having difficulty affording health insurance, getting their kids into good school systems, and attaining financial security has to be the social issues.

So why is it stupid, bigoted, and short-sighted for these voters to focus on these issues? Educated and rich conservatives are talking all the time about how it's the poor's own fault for not making better choices and how it's not government's job to intervene. It makes perfect sense for the working class to focus on what has changed that has resulted in people allegedly making these poor choices rather than having as great of a focus on business friendly polices as encouraged by Romney. Sure, they share this agenda too, but while business friendly policies are salient to the wealthier, to the working class it is the moral issues that are more directly salient for their economic and social woes. They need to resolve the problems of the family and of preventing these people from making the bad choices that are leading to social and economic decline far more than they need increased incentives at the top, for them, the salient problem is the decline in their own neighborhoods, not capital mobility.

Overall, watching the primary debates and reading the coverage has made me entirely cynical about the American right. In speeches, on blogs, and in campaign press releases they stress their ideas about individual responsibility and culture in order to oppose any policy that would seek to address the social forces or other aggregate pressures that so many researchers and analysts identify as the cause of our problems. Yet, when someone seeks to follow through to the logical conclusion of these beliefs, that the changes in America and our economic problems ultimately have individual causes based on morality and changes in family and social structure, the people putting these views forward are ridiculed and mocked.

In the end, I see nothing but self-justifying elitism. The views expressed serve to justify the self-worth of the powerful, their exalted position in society, and the idea that what is best for them is best for the country. They do nothing but confirm that those at the top are in fact the best, that they deserve what they have, and that those that don't have don't deserve. If they were honest about these views, they'd support the idea that something has to have caused the shift in values that has led to less economic mobility and other symptoms of our economic malaise and that change, beyond lower tax rates, is necessary to deal with it. Instead, men like Santorum are mocked for suggesting that the roots of our problems are in fact social and religious and with family structure, despite these very issues being frequently cited as why inequality is justifiable and why high tax rates punish people for success. As soon as something is tried to be done to fix the lower rungs of society, rather than promote the self-aggrandizement of the top, those that earlier said virtually identical things to justify the inequality all of a sudden are found mocking these views. Frankly, I think it's transparent and it disgusts me.

Of course, I don't share these conservative assumptions and believe that changes in the US are due to shifts in social forces that have to be dealt with through an aggregate, rather than individual, perspective. But I can't help but notice the inconsistency in that arguments that are used to justify opposition to social programs, taxation, and heightened inequality are mocked by the very same people that make them when someone proposes to actually do something about the individual level factors that are supposedly causing our decline. Something has changed, so is it the individual level factors Santorum is talking about, or is it systemic factors that can't be grasped with a purely individual level explanation and analysis? Be consistent.

* To make sure I'm clear, I don't believe in class as an intrinsic property of the market system or of individual relation to the means of production. I do believe that class attitudes can result from poorly instituted policies and from concentrations of power and inequality that are possible under certain economic equilibriums. However, class can be largely eliminated through better policies that don't discriminate based on income level or favor certain types of income that are skewed towards particular ends of the income distribution (this is one of the main reasons I don't like the different capital gains rate, whatever its economic justifications differential treatment of different income sources appears to me to have been a strong determinant in the formation of class attitudes, the long run social cost of maintaining the differential treatment seems to me to be greater than the economic benefits).

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