Friday, December 27, 2013

Bill Keller and understanding the left

Bill Keller was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times from 1984 to 1988, he then became a bureau chief in first Moscow and then Johannesburg, moving up to Foreign Editor and then Managing Editor and then finally up to Executive Editor, where he retired from the Times in 2011. For such a long-time, experienced newspaperman, I found it very disturbing that his view of how the “left-left” (As opposed to the “center-left”) views economic issues to be so very shallow and uninformed. One would think that with all of the contacts that one with his experience would have, he'd be able to chat with any number of left-leaning people with strong views on the economy.

He does a good, quickie summary of economic inequality, but then tries to tell us how the left views the American economy today, where we get comments like this:

The left-left sees economic inequality as mainly a problem of distribution — the accumulation of vast wealth that never really trickles down from on high. Their prescription is to tax the 1 percent and close corporate loopholes, using the new revenues to subsidize the needs of the poor and middle class. They would string the safety net higher: expand Social Security, hold Medicare inviolate, extend unemployment insurance, protect food stamps, create more low-income housing. They would raise the minimum wage.

I'd call that, at  best, a highly simplified vision as to how the left diagnoses the problem of inequality. The lefty website Daily Kos has a regular Saturday feature: “This week in the War on Workers,” where it examines all kinds of disputes and tensions and battles between workers and corporations.  The progressive left sees unions and worker rights as being really critical to reversing economic inequality.

Keller quotes President Obama as being concerned with “competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private-sector investment,” but then claims “he would do trade deals to expand our diminishing share of foreign markets; he would shrink long-term deficits and streamline regulations.”

A piece for identifies four substantive reforms that don't involve taxes (so that none of them need to involve Congress). The fourth recommendation directly contradicts the suggestion that “trade deals” (NAFTA, TPP, etc.) are of any value to America's middle class whatsoever. Yes, they may make more overseas sales possible, but they also make it easier and more profitable to move production facilities, i.e., middle class jobs, overseas.


The left-left seems to believe that government investments — roads and bridges, clean energy, education, etc. — and more-generous safety-net benefits can all be had by milking the rich and cutting military spending.

Well, no. We also believe in deficit spending. We believe that deficit spending is not necessarily a good or healthy thing to engage in, but as with say, an unanticipated war,  the spending of borrowed money is vastly preferable to getting overrun by the enemy. To have deficits go up versus having scientific research stall or children to go uneducated or for communities to go without police protection doesn't seem to us to be any sort of reasonable choice at all. In the abstract, everybody likes the idea of cutting “wasteful spending,” but in the actual world of concrete realities, it's very difficult for everyone to agree on exactly what spending is “wasteful” versus “necessary,” with the solution normally being to select the spending that benefits those with the least political power as being the spending that gets cut. The real question for anyone who wants to cut the budget is “Are you attacking weak claims or are you attacking weak clients?” 

I'm not sure that “the left tends to treat entitlements as sacred” so much as we are completely unconvinced that entitlements need to be sacrificed for any reason whatsoever. Our economic analysis in The People's Budget, put out by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, manages to achieve all sorts of positive objectives without sacrificing anything at all in terms of entitlements, i.e., without cutting Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid. I find it kind of amazing that a newsperson with such broad and deep experience is apparently unaware that such a document even exists.

Here's a peculiar charge:

And a third difference between the near left and the far left is the question of making government more efficient. This is not so much a policy dispute as a mind-set. In education, health care, Social Security and other areas, the center seems more receptive to reforms intended to get decent results at lower costs.

As a member of the “far left,” I most certainly don't see anything decent about education “reform.” I agree with the title and subtitle of Diane Ravitch's piece: “School privatization is a hoax, 'reformers' aim to destroy public schools. Our public schools aren't in decline. And 'reformers' with wild promises don't care about education — just profits.”  In short, we don't accept the proposition that privatizing schools is going to “get decent results at lower costs.” Yes, I think it IS a “policy dispute” and that we have strong reason to believe that the policies suggested by right-wingers are really, really awful, terrible ideas. As Ravitch points out:

They believe it is faster, simpler, and less expensive to privatize the public schools than do anything substantive to reduce poverty and racial isolation or to provide the nurturing environments and well-rounded education that children from prosperous families receive. 
Instead, the privatization movement nonchalantly closes the schools attended by poor children and destabilizes their lives. The privatization agenda excites the interest of edu-entrepreneurs, who see it as a golden opportunity to make money. But it is bad for our society. It undermines the sense of collective responsibility for collective needs. It hurts public education not only by attacking its effectiveness and legitimacy but by laying claim to its revenues.

Keller's “decent results” are actually a nightmare for anyone who's truly interested in genuinely improving American society. Privatizing education will fatten a few wallets without providing any real benefit to anyone else. It's difficult to see how health care benefits from keeping it in private hands. Private health care insurance entrepreneurs have left about 15% or one-sixth of the population without any health insurance at all. This one-sixth can be covered by using premiums from healthy people to subsidize care for less-healthy people, but of course that means less profit for entrepreneurs, so that cross-subsidizing will simply never happen under a wholly private system.

Now clearly, Keller has lots of ideological sympathy for the “center left,” that is, the Blue Dog Democrats or the Third Way.

The tension between entitlements and investment is a Third Way obsession. In a column and two blog posts last year (here, and here, and here) I sympathized with the case for imposing some restraint on entitlements. I still do.

So a question here is for those who are trying to decide how to inform themselves on a political issue, specifically on how a particular faction feels about that issue, in this case, on economics. When studying history, we have “primary” and “secondary” sources. A primary source is something like Daily Kos, which supplies us with lefty viewpoints that are delivered straight from the parties themselves. The site also does plenty of in-between pieces that feature lots and lots of direct, lengthy quotations, interspersed with their own commentary.

Keller provides us with a straight, unmixed secondary source. We don't get any quotes from his original sources, we get nothing but his summaries and assessments as to what lefties (As opposed to Third Way partisans) are thinking and advocating. In the first paragraph to this essay, we can see that Keller's resume is very, very good for doing this. He's a newsperson of very wide experience. But as we saw in my review, his actual performance leaves the unaware readers stupider than when they began. Those unfortunate readers now “know” many things that just aren't so.

When studying history, the use of secondary sources is unavoidable as original, primary sources may be in a foreign language or really long-winded or poorly written while still saying worthwhile things. In history, there is value in secondary sources. In seeking an understanding of current political issues, I regard secondary sources as pretty darn close to worthless. I read secondary sources all the time of course, but if I'm really trying to understand why someone feels the way they do or am trying to assess how a faction really regards an issue, there's simply no substitute for a primary source, for the original words that the studied people were using. 

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