Friday, June 30, 2017

The same old youth

Matt Bai had a piece yesterday about why older Democratic leaders should step aside and make room for young blood with fresh ideas.

The strongest part of the argument was the idea of accountability for failure. Since winning the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008, the Democrats have steadily lost ground, not only at the national level but in state and local government as well.

Now we have Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress, in position to nominate lots of federal judges (and probably a couple of more Supreme Court justices), and in control of almost enough states to call a national constitutional convention.

That's an "impressive" record, the kind that reasonably leads to the thought that maybe some new folks should be in charge.

Less impressive is his observation that the last Democrat to become president by election while older than 55 was Woodrow Wilson (Truman and Johnson were older when they won their first elections, but they had already become president by death of their predecessor). At the same time, "before George W. Bush, the last nonincumbent Republican under 55 to win the White House was Herbert Hoover."

Bai says this makes sense because "Democrats win when they embody modernization." But Michael Dukakis had turned 55 just 5 days before the election that he lost to George H.W. Bush in 1988, and he campaigned on his success at having run Massachusetts in an efficient, modern way. Al Gore was 52 when he lost (sort of) to George W. Bush in 2000, and he had been specifically in charge of modernizing government under Bill Clinton.

So youth and modernity hardly guarantee Democratic success.

But the biggest problem with Bai's article is contained in this paragraph:
Anyway, it’s not just that all these iconic Democrats are older; it’s that their vision for the party — with the possible exception of Biden, who’s pro-trade and pro-growth — is relentlessly backward-looking. They’re for government-run health care, expanding Social Security benefits (even for the wealthy) and free college for everyone. They’d pay for all of it with tax increases that magically cover the cost.
First, what makes Biden better (in Bai's opinion) is that he's "pro-trade and pro-growth." I hadn't noticed Warren, Sanders, Pelosi, Clinton - any of the elderly Democrats who Bai says should step aside - being "anti-growth." And if I correctly understand the progressive critique of the D movers and shakers, a big piece of it is that they've sold out the working class by being pro-trade.

The line about old D's being "for government-run health care" is inaccurate. Health care is not the same as health insurance. Government-run health care would be something like "VA for all." What some D's - like Warren and Sanders - are talking about is single-payer, which is government-run health insurance - e.g., Medicare for all.

Let's give Bai the benefit of the doubt and assume that he meant government-run health insurance. That's supposed to be a bad thing? I thought the progressive critique of the Democratic Party was that its leaders were merely defending Obamacare from the disaster of Trumpcare, while failing to offer a vision of something even better than the ACA. But then when they do offer a vision of something better, Bai slags them for being "old".

Similarly for expanding Social Security. We have a looming retirement crisis in this country, with the average household not having adequate savings to supplement their Social Security check up to the level of a decent retirement. Five years ago, Soc. Sec. expansion was nowhere on the radar - the public discussion was about how much to cut it, and expansion was crazy talk that got you quickly dismissed by "serious" people. Making Social Security more generous is not a complete solution, but it is real engagement with the twin problems of automation and dwindling pension programs that have been affecting the working class for decades and are now moving into several skilled occupations.

As far as expanding Social Security "(even for the wealthy)," there's a very strong argument that means-testing is a great way to weaken programs. If you make them depend on income, then they're easily portrayed as welfare for "those" people. If they're universal, then they have much broader support - witness the widespread appeal of Social Security and Medicare. They're also simpler and cheaper to run if they're universal, because you don't have to spend the effort to figure out whether someone qualifies.

"But the rich don't need it!" Strictly speaking, no, but they're also paying for it. The way Social Security and Medicare are structured, high-income households receive benefits, but on average they pay in a lot more than they get back out (especially in the case of Medicare, which taxes your full salary, not just up to about $130,000). That can remain true after you expand benefits for everyone (even for the wealthy), as long as you adjust the tax structure in tandem.

Which leads us to his parting shot about how "They’d pay for all of it with tax increases that magically cover the cost." Well, yes, if you're going to have an activist government that's actually doing useful things for people, most of those things are going to require tax revenues.

Bai's use of the word "magically" could imply either that the math doesn't work (the taxes wouldn't actually be enough) or that it's unrealistic to think that those taxes would actually get through Congress.

The math is easy enough to do and is routinely done. Clinton's plans included credible calculations of how proposed revenue sources would cover proposed activities. Sanders' single-payer proposal included tax revenue; the Urban Institute presented a study that claimed the taxes were inadequate, but the study itself overlooked some of the offsetting savings that would have come with Sanders' plan - the point is, it's perfectly possible to make a reasonable calculation of revenue adequacy, and Democrats' plans (even old Democrats' plans) routinely do that.

What about the impossibility of getting taxes through Congress? If you're talking about the current Congress, then sure, it's utterly impossible. But the point of a campaign program isn't what you think can be accomplished with the bozos currently in charge, but what you claim you can get done if your side gets elected.

What about more concrete evidence? The Affordable Care Act actually included extensive new taxes - primarily on high-income households - to cover the greatly increased expenditure that benefited a lot of people, with low-income households generally benefiting more.

And it passed. (Of course, that was a Democratic Congress, with a Democratic president. Draw your own conclusions.)

So what does Bai want?

It seems like he wants younger Democrats with exciting new ideas of making government smarter rather than those tired, old Democratic ideas of making government bigger (even if, sometimes, that's actually a practical way of getting something useful done). Oh, and these fresh, young Democrats should be pro-growth and pro-trade.

In other words, it sounds like he wants a younger version of Bill Clinton. While simultaneously castigating old Democrats for not offering a fresh vision.

I think there's some merit to the idea that the Democratic Party would be better served by younger leaders.

But taken as a whole, Bai's critique is simply incoherent.

And as a program for achieving progressive goals, there's not much there.


  1. Great critique, although I have to wonder: Who is Matt Bai & why should I care? Will his take influence anyone?

    1. Matt Bai is ... well, you make a good point.

      I encountered this article on an email list I follow, where it had been posted without comment.

      When someone posts an article without comment, it's impossible to know for sure how they view it, but as a general rule I'd assume they're posting because they agree, unless there's some larger context that makes that implausible.

      On the list, there's a lot of objection to Democrats. At the milder end, they've spent the last 40 years selling out their original working-class constituency, so it's no wonder they've lost so many seats around the country. At the harsher end, Hillary Clinton is clearly an unconvicted criminal.

      Another common idea is that the party needs new faces to replace the worn-out leaders who have been responsible for selling out the workers and losing elections.

      So along comes this posted article by Matt Bai (who?) arguing for new faces to replace those old failures and come up with exciting new policies - and if he were to spell those policies out, I'm pretty sure most people on the list would think they were horrid.

      The posting of the article on that email list struck me as emblematic of where progressives are at the moment. There are critiques of Democratic leadership that, right or wrong, have the virtue of being consistent. And then there's stuff like this, which castigates others for not being realistic, not facing facts, while itself being an illogical hodge-podge.

      Back to your first question. All I knew about Bai was that I knew the name. When I looked him up, it turns out he is "national political columnist for Yahoo! News. Prior to that, he was the chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, where he covered both the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns" (so says Wikipedia).

      It's not the stature or following of Krugman or Brooks, but it's not nothing (and it's a lot more than my little blog, where 28 people so far have read this great critique).

      In the end, you could just chalk this up as a complaint that "someone on the internet was wrong."

    2. Thank you for the reply! I for one am relieved that I didn't get a response like--you don't know Bai? Where have you been, you un-progressive moron?! I do like how in this comment you flesh out a kind of general trend in which there are legitimate critiques of the Democratic party but they get mixed in with a bunch of hooey. It is important to call out the hooey in order to keep us on focus for some of the big goals. As Tom Toles put it: "The solution seems pretty obvious. Trump is worse than just about any combination of Democrats and Democratic ideas that you can posit. The 'therefore' of this is that the Democrats need to combine their two wings if they want to be successful. Members of the progressive wing need to ask themselves, again, how a moderate Democrat is 'just as bad' as a Donald Trump Republican America. Moderates need to ask themselves if they really oppose genuinely popular and energizing policies such as single-payer health care more than they oppose a Donald Trump Republican America."

      My sense is that Bai may be a set-up for continuing a negative vibe on the Dems so that when the 2018 elections roll around people will be able to say "but the Dems didn't get rid of their old ideas" or whatever that let's people rationalize pulling the lever for a non-Democrat.