Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tax cuts for the rich

I mostly don't write about politics (for a lot of reasons, but mostly because most people have already said it better!) but this paragraph in David Leonhardt's "Economic Scene" column struck me as interesting:
Mr. Obama effectively traded tax cuts for the affluent, which Republicans were demanding, for a second stimulus bill that seemed improbable a few weeks ago. Mr. Obama yielded to Republicans on extending the high-end Bush tax cuts and on cutting the estate tax below its scheduled level. In exchange, Republicans agreed to extend unemployment benefits, cut payroll taxes and business taxes, and extend a grab bag of tax credits for college tuition and other items.
Now consider this: Leonhardt is a reporter for the Times.  As such, when he writes an op-ed type piece, it is mostly in the restrained way that the "Analysis" sections for the paper are written (see here, for example).   He doesn't -- and I would think, can't -- write in the way the Times op-ed writers write.  (For instance, see Paul Krugman's latest, which has a decidedly -- and probably justifiably -- apocalyptic tone.)

And yet, just read that opening paragraph I quoted above.  Even a simple, diplomatic, faux-objective rendering of the recent tax-cuts deal makes it very clear: what the Republicans wanted was for richer people (or to be more technical, those making more than 250,000 a year.  And the estate tax cut will only benefit multi-millionaires.).  How on earth will the Republicans spin this?  One would think that the Democrats can make hay with this with some good old-fashioned rabble-rousing against-the-fat-cats type of populism.  But no.  Listen to this missive from Kevin Drum, about how the deal is spun in Virginia:
I hate to say this but I do have my ear to the ground with a lot of "regular" folks and the way this impending "deal" is being described by most of them is that Republicans are pushing to keep the tax cuts which create jobs and the Democrats are pushing to extend unemployment benefits so lazy people can sit on their asses a while longer and live off those of us who work hard.
In other words, it is not Republicans who will end up being defensive about the deal but Democrats!  Even when the concessions that the Democrats fought for will benefit more people -- and more importantly, people in need -- as well as give the economy a much-needed stimulus.  Here is a graphic that shows the number of people who will benefit because of the concessions the Democrats fought for (link):

I have no stake in this battle, really.  But it strikes me that something interesting is going on here.  Republican voters in the US routinely list the deficit as their main concern.  Making the Bush tax cuts permanent, the Republicans' main priority, will increase the deficit anyway.  (And to be fair, Democrats are fine with making the tax cuts that apply to family incomes less than 250k permanent as well).  So how does the perception that the tax cuts are good even if they increase the much-cared for deficit come about?

One theory could be the Marxist notion of "false consciousness," that voters are in the grip of an ideology (in the Marxist sense).  I find these explanations unsatisfying. 

My guess is that the deficit -- a technocratic concept if there was one -- has fused into the notions of responsibility that constitute these voters' identities.  So these voters tolerate higher deficits if it is for "responsible" reasons but not so much if the deficit expands in response to an extension of unemployment benefits (even if they see unemployment all around them). I think this is an issue where some qualitative research -- in the form of extensive, unstructured interviews with Republican voters -- might help.  How has the deficit seeped into their very selves?  How do they understand themselves in terms of this deficit?  Anyone know of any research on this? 

Postscript: I began to think of George Lakoff's may be on to something after all -- even if Lakoff's theory is too much like the false consciousness in the guise of cognitive science.  Lakoff says voters typically think of the state in terms of the family metaphor: the nation-as-family metaphor.  A state with a deficit therefore corresponds to a family living beyond its means, a classic sign of irresponsibility.  That explains the deficit but what about support for the tax cuts?  Anyone know of any other possible explanations?  Any theories of political identity-formation that can be applied here?


Pierre said...

If you repeat something often enough, the sheeple will believe, whether you are a Republican repeating that tax cuts are good or you are a Christian repeating that god exists… Really, all it takes it relentless repetition over 30 years or so! Oh, maybe there are more nuanced theories, but it's amazing what hearing something over and over again will do to the brain, especially if you don't have the inclination to question things, as most people don't. :-)

scritic said...

Well, yes, one can certainly explain it that way but I don't usually like these kinds of explanations. The most important problem is that this theory distinguishes between true and false beliefs. By your explanation when voters believe true things, that's because, well, they're true (and therefore self-evident). And when they believe false things, well, that's because those things get repeated ad nauseam. That kind of explanation is not satisfying ... If people believe things, the reason why they believe them must be the same, or similar, whether the beliefs in question are true or false.

On the other hand, if what you're saying is that people believe things if they're repeated long enough, whether those things are true or false, now that's a theory I'm willing to give a try. In that case, the question becomes how exactly is it that those repetitions turn into belief. Although I suspect this is not quite what you have in mind ...