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A Small-Minded, Easily-Swayed American Public

Over the past month we are witness once again to the incredibly myopic view of our citizenry as well as that of our elected officials. We as a country are stuck in a collective rut, allowing ourselves to be swayed by the best sound bites reproduced over and over again on the cable news networks, the best Republican bites and worst Democratic offerings replicated repeatedly on Fox, the reverse on MSNBC.

Back in 2005, James McGann took a look at one of the places our ideas come from, the concept of a “think-tank.” McGann noted the famous quote offered by Bill Baroody Sr. of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

“The competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society.”

I could not agree more.

While reviewing this notion, McGann suggests that conservative think-tanks were created to “develop an alternative set of ideas …. intended to challenge the liberal orthodoxy that dominated policy debates in Washington and on college campuses throughout the United States. McGann notes that these institutions initially were able to achieve “their objective through thoughtful and independent analysis of policy issues.”

Since that time however, McGann sees think-tank agendas mirroring the emerging partisanship in Washington. Instead of looking at ideas with a healthy independent skepticism, McGann notes that these tanks are developing specific bents and simply leaning left or right ideologically depending on their affiliation.

Meanwhile, that partisanship has further devolved into two rather simplistic viewpoints: one – that the majority of think-tanks in the US are on college campuses and thus controlled by the liberal elite to promote their liberal agenda contrasted with the second – that conservatives have such deep pockets that they are simply spending their way towards the promotion of their conservative agenda.

McGann writes:

Such simplistic and one-sided explanations miss the big picture. They also enable the partisan merchants of fear on both sides to raise huge sums of money while providing a smokescreen for the shortcomings of their analysis.

Most importantly, McGann summarized seven environmental forces impacting the ability of think-tanks to provide independent analysis and advice. All sound terribly familiar to this concerned citizen.

· the development of partisan politics
· the growth of liberal and conservative advocacy groups
· the restrictive funding policies of donors
· the growth of specialised think-tanks
· the narrow and short-term orientation of congress and the White House
· the tyranny of myopic academic disciplines
· the growth of 24/7 cable news networks.

Our Economy

With that as a backdrop, we turn to one undisputed fact, that our nation’s economy continues to struggle. Unemployment rates remain an enormous issue despite the fact that our country is showing some signs of emerging from its collective funk.

Amidst that backdrop, we are hearing about a negotiated tax plan out of the White House, brokered with Republicans, one that President Obama is touting as a necessary step to ensuring that our economy does not slip backwards in the near future. The contrasting debate points feature the traditional Republican talking points regarding the need to reduce taxes and government spending against the Democratic talking points on protecting governmental programs that provide key safety nets for our citizens.

What we are witnessing represents some of the worst elements of McGann’s think tank analysis. In particular, we are seeing once again the immediate short-term orientation of both congress and the White House. This despite the recent election where many of the winning candidates ran on a platform of the importance of reducing the soaring national deficit.

I for one, would prefer a deeper discussion, one I thought our President would be able to bring forward. I voted for Obama believing he had the intellectual and leadership capacity to bring about policy that would move our country forward long term.

Here I turn to the white paper (pdf) of Larry M. Bartels of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Bartels points us first to a theme that is beyond dispute currently: the growing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots in America.

Bartels notes that over the past thirty years that we have seen economic inequality grow substantially in the United States. He cites several measures of this discrepancy including the Gini coefficient. Bartels notes that this measure reveals an almost 25 percent growth between 1970 and 2000.

For those not enamored with this quotient, Bartels turns to another measure, the income share of the richest five percent of U.S. households. Here the number increased by more than one-third between 1980 and 2000.

Bartels revised this paper in 2004 so it does not discuss the most recent developments. However, the consensus is that there has been only a widening of this discrepancy over the last decade.

Of course, the most important question should be: is this discrepancy meaningful? There is a certain morality that one would question but we will skip that debate and turn simply to the economic one.

Are the tax cut policies espoused by Republicans and now also being reinforced by the White House good for our economy or do they primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans?

At the heart of the debate is yet another fundamental fact: our economy is driven primarily by consumer spending. So when it comes to a stronger economy, Bartels provides some very interesting data regarding our election priorities.

Over time, Bartels notes that have been real “consistent differences in patterns of real pre-tax income growth under Democratic and Republican presidents in the post-war U.S.” Here is what Bartels found:

  • Democratic presidents have produced slightly more income growth for poor families than for rich families, resulting in a modest decrease in overall inequality.
  • Republican presidents have produced a great deal more income growth for rich families than for poor families, resulting in a substantial increase in inequality.
  • Families at the 95th percentile of the income distribution have experienced identical income growth under Democratic and Republican presidents.
  • Those at the 20th percentile have experienced more than four times as much income growth under Democrats as they have under Republicans.

But if we focus on two issues that appear to be most relevant right now, Bartels found that the basis for these differences are attributable to partisan differences in two areas:

  • Unemployment, which has been 30 percent lower on average under Democratic presidents,
  • And GDP growth, which has been 30 percent higher on average under Democratic presidents.

It is these two factors that have also had the strongest impact on income growth at the bottom of the income distribution.

For this reader, these two elements are in significant contrast to the prevailing sound bite that dominated our recent election: tax and spend liberals are bad for the American economy. It also stands in remarkable contrast to Obama’s separation over the last month from his base towards the need for tax cuts to spur the economy.

But even more importantly, it is a clear indication that we have not elected anyone, our president included, who is ready to tackle big ideas. Instead, we have as McGann noted, a cycle that perpetuates short-term interests of all, politicians and the public alike.

Like many Americans, I will benefit personally from the negotiated tax plan. But also, like most Americans, I am disappointed with a president who was elected based on a collective belief that we might actually find ourselves focused on producing a future for our children and our country.

But as disappointed as I am with our President, I am more disappointed that people seem to be so easily manipulated. I am also wondering when we as Americans will once again insist that we have a government that is by and for the people.

The current tax policy debate reinforces that our government is unable to provide us the requisite leadership in these enormously challenging times.

And that we citizens are either too distracted or uncaring to hold these people accountable.

2 comments

1 crudbasher { 12.14.10 at 12:44 pm }

Hi Jason! I have your blog on my RSS feed and found this an interesting topic. I have a question for you. Your position is that the American public is “Small minded and easily swayed”. Was that also the case in 2008 when they elected President Obama?

2 Rachel { 12.20.10 at 6:07 am }

Yes, very disappointing that the new tax package has been passed. What individual Americans don’t seem to understand is that the government, like each individual and each American family, must have an income in order to spend and/or make responsible use of credit. American taxes are lower than they have ever been, and lower than the vast majority of the rest of the Western world. Maybe if we paid higher taxes in order to pay for all the services we demand, we would have less money to buy monstrous flat-screen televisions and cable TV packages, not to mention M&Ms and peanut butter cups……which could only be an improvement! Americans don’t realize what things cost; we want the best of everything, but want ‘somebody else’ to pay for it. If we don’t each step up soon, and take responsibility for our country’s fiscal state of disaster, the future is looking incredibly bleak.

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