Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Learning From Republicans: Concern Trolling


Splendid concern trolling from old faith-based Bushist Michael Gerson in today's Washington Post, under the headline:

What might help Democrats’ prospects? A focus on workers’ dignity.

The headline alone is a near perfect example of how it works: building a series of idiotic false assumptions

  • Democrats need Michael Gerson's help
  • Michael Gerson in the pure goodness of his heart wants to give it to us—Christians are just like that
  • Democrats don't care about the dignity of workers (in spite of the almost compulsive regularity with which it recurs, say, in the speeches of President Biden, generally with reference to the right of workers to organize, something Republicans are not known to be very hot on—if not as often as the less specific "dignity of work")
  • No wonder they're in trouble!

To create out of nothing the impression that Democrats really deserve to lose, because our contempt for workers is such that we won't even consider Gerson's well-meant advice.

The column itself purports to be about an Aspen Institute conversation Gerson witnessed between two more or less Democratic eminences, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and the political philosopher Michael Sandel, which wasn't just about Democrats but about what Sandel would call the neoliberal world order, which many Democrats, notably President Bill Clinton, and most Republicans have favored, and some Democrats have thought to oppose—Sandel has repeatedly singled out President Joe Biden for praise on this score

What does he make of Joe Biden’s presidency to date? “He is not the captive of the meritocratic political orientation of his predecessors. And this has partly to do with the fact he was the first Democratic nominee for president in 36 years without a degree from an Ivy League university.” Sandel cites Biden’s redistributive $1.9trn stimulus package, and his willingness to defy criticism from economists of the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton eras, as  evidence that the US president has “broken with neoliberal economics”.

alongside Germany's new Social Democratic chancellor Olaf Scholz. 

The central point of Sandel's argument is that working people are insulted by the "rhetoric of rising" adopted by both parties over the last four or so decades, in the innocent-sounding formula of the American Dream according to which if you "work hard and play by the rules" you will inevitably rise in wealth and status, taken to demonstrate that if you have more wealth and status than somebody else that's because you're a better person—you have more "merit"—and that if you want to improve your situation you have to get a college degree. It takes dignity from the character of the majority of the population who don't and won't have college degrees (which is, as I always remind you, not really the same thing as being "workers").

And a society-wide failure to recognize the dignity of workers is reflected all over the system in various ways (29:00 into the video), some of which I've talked about before, such as the way investors get softer tax rates than workers do, as if their money is more special than the money stained by sweat.

Of course you can guess what Gerson likes and doesn't like:

The cupboard of policy ideas that serve such a social good is not entirely empty. Both speakers were inclined to shift the tax burden away from work and toward consumption and financial speculation. One of Sandel’s ideas — eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with taxes on consumption, wealth and financial transactions — might be revolutionary in a good way. It would certainly symbolize a shift in our country’s attitude toward labor.

There was one false note by Bennet, who set out his belief in abortion rights as one of his motivating reasons for building a center-left populism.... peeling off center-right voters who are pro-life — people who think the protection of nascent life is a matter of human rights?

I think the idea of the payroll tax as a social insurance premium shared by employer and employee is a vital recognition of the dignity of work. There should definitely be taxes on wealth and on financial transactions, and the payroll tax should certainly be lower, less of a burden on workers, collected more progressively or more from employers (in the style of the French "social contribution"), but it's an important thing for retired workers to say "I earned this Social Security and Medicare, this is not some kind of gift." Those programs should not be divorced from the idea of work as "entitling" us in the good sense of the word. 

Really, eliminating payroll tax, as Trump has frequently promised to do, is the first step in eliminating Social Security, or gradually stripping Medicare down, as UK's Tories have been doing with the National Health Service (similarly paid out of general revenues) for the last 40 years.

As to a (federal?) consumption tax, Sandel seems to think these can be made progressive, but that's not how they normally work.

And as to abortion, I don't know how Gerson has avoided learning this, but the harm done by the Dobbs decision falls hardest on working women who must take time off work, probably unpaid, and probably pay for childcare, and maybe lose their jobs altogether, in order to get abortion care if it's banned in their state. It's possible Gerson doesn't know that women are workers just like men—like most Republicans, when he imagines a "worker" it's a white guy with a literal blue collar and a lunchbucket. And a member of the "silent majority". 

And that's where the concern trolling winds up, as ever, with a finger-wagging admonition that if you know what's good for you you'll take a turn to the right, and some timorous centrist Democrats out there are going to agree, which is most definitely not what Sandel has in mind.

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