Friday, January 29, 2016

A Simple Matter of Fairness

Marguerite de La Motte and Claire McDowell in The Mark of Zorro (1920). Via Fritzi, of course.
David Brooks misses the good old days ("What Republicans Should Say", January29 2016) :
For a few decades, American and British conservatism marched in tandem. Thatcher was philosophically akin to Reagan. John Major was akin to George Bush.
That's precisely 1.2 decades when the tandem act was in effect, from Reagan's inauguration in 1981 to Clinton's in 1993 (Thatcher was prime minister 1979-90, Major 1990-97), but you were saying?
But now the two conservatisms have split. The key divide is over what to do about the slow-motion devastation being felt by the less educated, the working class and the poor.
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have appealed to working-class voters mostly by blaming outsiders. If we could kick out all the immigrants there wouldn’t be lawbreakers driving down wages. If we could dismantle the Washington cartel the economy would rise.
In Britain David Cameron is going down another path.
Actually Cameron is no slouch at blaming uncontrolled immigration for low wages, when he's in the mood. I don't know how he stands on the Washington cartel (defined by Cruz as "the lobbyists on K Street, the big money and big corporations", but then it's also "not two parties, it's one party" or "career politicians in both parties who get in bed with lobbyists and special interests here in Washington and grow and grow and grow government", and the proposed method of dismantling it—"You make the political price of doing the wrong thing higher than the political price of doing the right thing. That can only come from We the People"—is not entirely clear to me).

What Cameron wants to do about slow-motion devastation is outlined, it seems, in a speech he gave in North London a couple of weeks ago to explain how you can lift people out of poverty at the same time as cutting their benefits and council services by
bulldozing council estates, giving £1bn to the National Citizens Service providing voluntary work for teenagers [speaking of driving down wages], more funding for mental health services [to counter what he calls "the damaging stigma that surrounds addiction and mental health"] especially for new mothers and people with eating disorders, a “help to save” scheme to encourage budgeting, and parenting classes.
So Brooks is kvelling. It's the bundle of policies he's been dreaming of for his imaginary Republican presidential candidate who will defeat the Cruz-Trump menace and restore the party to its traditional focus on modest, small-government, Burkean initiatives to control every aspect of the lives of the lower classes ("an agenda that covers the entire life cycle," he swoons), weirdly in line with Nicholas Kristof (whose column yesterday, h/t Peter Janovsky, was all about how Republicans should publicize their "good ideas" on poverty reduction, like "They were right that the best way to spell aid is often j-o-b", although the practical application of the principle generally didn't go so far as to get people jobs but limited itself to punishing them for not having one, or cutting off their welfare if they did).

One of the things we tend to forget when comparing conservative politics in the UK and US is that the UK has and has had for many years a relatively complete social safety net with a full pension system (though "one of the worst in Europe" and actually worse than the US Social Security system, old people having that much less political power in Britain), comprehensive unemployment benefits that don't expire after x many weeks (though they're also getting stingier and nastier as time goes on), and universal medical care free to the user, so that the tax-cutter faction in the UK has more to work with. British politicians like Cameron don't talk so much about opposing welfare programs in general:
I am not against state intervention.
I’m the Prime Minister who started the Troubled Families programme – perhaps the most intensive form of state intervention there is.
And I support the welfare state.
I believe the creation of those vital safety nets was one of the outstanding achievements of post-war Britain.
So that those so-called Burkean modest methods are more or less forced on the Tories by the situation in both directions, chipping away at the safety net Burkean bit by bit and offering to replace the bits by still cheaper forms of manipulation and harassment. For example, consider the plans for the council estates under Brooks's beloved Thatcher and Major and now:
A recent LSE report, The State of Estates, also pointed out that Broadwater Farm had millions of pounds spent on it as part of the Priority Estates Project which ran throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, which reduced crime and, through a permanent neighbourhood office and amenities for sport and socialising, gave residents a community focal point.
Cameron's plan, in contrast, is to spend £140m knocking Broadwater Farm and 100 other estates down, turning the property over to private developers. This is not progress in achieving the Brooksian advantages, but regress.

Together with coping with increases in child poverty in Britain by changing the definition of child poverty so it doesn't look so bad, and
plans to double government funding for relationship counselling for troubled families and relaunch a coalition proposal to issue vouchers for parenting classes.
And of course (but not mentioned in the speech)
to slash welfare payments by an extra £12 billion (17 billion euros) in the coming year. The chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, called the cuts to the income of the lowest-paid and unemployed, a "simple matter of fairness."
That's the main point, isn't it. You can tell by the price tag.

Whereas in the US the social safety net is already so severely cut back that there's practically nothing left:

Via Economic Policy Institute.
The Cameronian basket isn't even relevant to the presidential elections here, in that in the US all these initiatives would be state or municipal, not federal, matters. They're too cheap (unlike, say, the education system) for the feds to get a toehold. So much as it pushes Brooks's tender buttons ("loneliness", "marriage", "quality time", "religious affiliation"), it really doesn't offer America anything but another excuse for cutting benefits.

Brooks may really believe he's preaching an alternative to the standard liberal approach to alleviating poverty and working-class distress (or "twentieth-century approach" as Cameron calls it, perhaps not having noticed that Margaret Thatcher used to hang around in the 20th century, not to mention Mussolini and Lee Kuan Yew). He sums it up as if he did believe it:
There are two natural approaches to help those who are falling behind. The first we’ll call the Bernie Sanders approach. Focus on economics. Provide people with money and jobs and their lifestyles will become more stable. Marriage rates will rise. Depression rates will drop.
The second should be the conservative approach. Focus on social norms, community bonds and a nurturing civic fabric. People need relationships and basic security before they can respond to economic incentives.
Rather than the Bernie Sanders approach (as if he'd just made it up!) I think we might like to call it the Frances Perkins approach, after one of my favorite heroes of public virtue in the list of Brooks's Road to Character. But then when you think about it that way, if you really intended to do it, which would be less intrusive, manipulative, big-governmentish anyway? Getting some cash in people's pockets or managing their social norms, civic fabrics, and relationships to make them worthy of some economic incentives?

Update:  Driftglass just happens to have Edmund Burke right here with him.

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