Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Me and David Broooks Finally Agree--Sort Of

I never thought that I would see the day when New York Times' resident conservative David Brooks and yours truly would agree on anything, but that day has arrived--SORT OF. In a "conversation" with Gail Collins in the January 9 edition of the Times over the Affordable Care Act< remember that? It is the real name of the program that even most liberals and the mainstream media have allowed themselves to be suckered into calling "Obamacare.">  In the course of their "conversation," Brooks acknowledges that "Either you have a truly centralized single-payer system or you have a truly decentralized market-based system. This hybrid of semi-centralized, semi-market-based may magically combine the disadvantages of each approach." He goes on to say that "campaign finance reform is like that, too. We should either have straight-up public financing of elections, or complete transparency in political giving." Needless to say, I favor the "left pole" of both his spectra (i.e. "a centralized single payer system" and " straight-up public financing of campaigns"), while he obviously favors the other extreme.   

Mr. Brooks is confident of his positions because "the public seems to have a problem with coercion in any form," so much so that any government program <health care or whatever> "would have to be built around a paradigm of individual choice, even if it nudges the choices one way or the other. Other paradigms are just not culturally acceptable anymore." Of course, what he regards as "culturally acceptable anymore" is the result of more than three decades of carefully-crafted propagandizing by the radical right and its corporate/advertising/ brainwashing machine.It is grudgingly hard not to be impressed by the magnitude of their achievement. While true progressives passively watched, "Centrists," "Third Way" gurus,and the Democratic Leadership Council convinced most Democrats  that winning presidential elections the was "the only thing thing"--even if that meant abandoning or watering down the programs that were the legacy of the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society, and the Civil and Women's Rights movements. In other words, abandoning the very principles and programs that identified the Democratic Party as "democratic."

There was a time before Reagan, the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, and the other "masters of deceit," when government was widely regarded by the majority of Americans as "part of the solution," not the cause of the problem. I know that is true, not only from a professional lifetime of studying U.S. history, but also from having  lived in that world for three quarters of a century. From the height of the New Deal through the first half of the 1960s, this country enjoyed its greatest and best distributed prosperity and its most equalizing rights and opportunities--"the greatest good for the greatest number." Most progressives naively believed that we would continue to build upon those seminal improvements. Then came the Vietnam War, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the 1968 election, and all the horrors that followed.

 The "masters of deceit" have managed to subvert that irrevocable truth by their incessant chanting of the glories of the "free market" and reactionary politics. But they have not completely obliterated it. There are many signs of its revival, especially among today's young people, who have come to realize that the highly touted "American Dream" of perpetual upward mobility through the private sector is actually  a "nightmare," manipulated by corporate America and its political lackeys. The worse things get in those two areas,the more  
people will awaken from this "nightmare" and demand real solutions, rather than "hybrids."  

So, I guess that David Brooks and I actually "agree to disagree." At least we agree that "hybrids" in both
health care insurance and voting rights are essentially "cop-outs."  


Friday, January 3, 2014

Why Everyone Prospers Under a Progressive Regime-- Even Its Opponents

Is it possible that absolutely everyone--even those who most vehemently oppose it--fares better under a progressive regime? YES, according to The Political Economy Of Human Happiness: How Voters Choices Determine the Quality of Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013) by Benjamin Radcliff, professor of political economy at the University of Notre Dame, who has published extensively in the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Perspectives on Politics, the British Journal of Political Science, and Social Forces.

Radcliff's thesis is best summed up on p.178: "Everyone profits from a more generous welfare state, from labor laws that protect workers, and by strong labor unions,whatever their income. The data are consistent in documenting that everyone benefits from politics traditionally favored by the left. The welfare state, labor unions, and political regulation of the economy thus contribute to creating a world that offers the promise of a satisfying life to all." What gives Radcliff's book its considerable credibility is, in a word, DATA!   

The author applies the data, methods, and theories of contemporary social science to the question of how political outcomes in democratic societies determine the quality of life. He contends that individual contentment is a product of both"inner psychological processes" and the extent to which the basic needs of our human condition are satisfied. He strives to answer the question posed by Albert Einstein (in an article published in Monthly Review in 1949): How should "the structure of society" be changed "in order to make human life as satisfying as possible?" Radcliff "immodestly" aspires to provide an objective answer by "relying upon the same canons of reason and evidence required of any other empirical question amenable to study through social scientific means." To do so, he utilizes "real-world data"garnered from pooled World Values Surveys (1981-2007) of the 34 countries in Western Europe, North  America, and the Pacific that make up the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).        

Radcliff is at great pains to assert that he does not regard the "free market," per se, as evil or as "the enemy." In fact, he argues that the impulses toward a market economy and political democracy rose in tandem during the late 18th century as complementary means of producing "the greatest happiness to the greatest number." Even with all of its obvious failings, he still considers the free market as "one of humanity's signature accomplishments." He rejects any attempt to replace the market with some form of collectivism or demand economy, and wholeheartedly agrees with Einstein that the only viable system is some form of democratic socialism or social democracy, such as is currently practiced by nearly all nations of the OECD. The author quotes philosopher Robert Heilbroner, who contends that the market has become "society's organizing principle" which "profoundly influences all aspects of the social formation, whether these are concerned with material life, justice,order, or custom and belief." Radcliff's basic objection to a completely unregulated economy is that "its costs manifest themselves in a currency more valuable than money"-- in the "degree to which people actually enjoy being alive." It eventually results in the "commodification" of everyone and everybody. Consequently, it is the "internal dynamics" between a market economy and democracy that hold "the key to understanding how human happiness is produced and developed" and that constitutes "the arena in which to understand human happiness." Any attempt to answer Einstein's query "must, of necessity,embody some particular strategy for using the market as a means toward that goal." Radcliff  is convinced that"we are now in a position to discover an empirical answer," because we possess the data and tools previous societies lacked", the tools necessary "to apply rigorous social scientific methods." His book, therefore, is "dedicated to applying the data, methods, and theories of contemporary social science to the question of how political outcomes in a democracy determine the quality of life."               

Chapter One examines the historical and philosophical origins of the enduring conflict between competing prescriptions for improving the quality of human life: the emergence of the market economy and its resultant divisions into classes, on the one hand, and the advent of liberal democracy, on the other. Chapter Two develops a conceptual model in which workers can be protected from the "natural indifference" of the market and the commodification of the individual, although he candidly acknowledges that such a system may well come at a high cost to economic efficiency. Chapter Three investigates the abstract and theoretical arguments of both "the left" and "the right" concerning which policies best promote human happiness: "the general sovereignty of the market" versus "the principles of justice and equity conventionally associated with New Deal and European Social Democracy." Chapter Four is an introduction to the scientific study of happiness, including its shortcomings, its theoretical approaches to understanding how the economy, society, and polity effect happiness across individuals and countries. It also surveys existing empirical research on the causes and correlates of happiness. Chapter Five utilizes "real world data" aggregated from the World Values Surveys of the OECD over the past two decades to analyze the positive and negative effects that the size and scope of "big government" has on human happiness. In particular, he provides ample evidence that "Big Government" reduces poverty and generally increases living standards for most people, reduces the insecurity inherent in the market system, reduces the social pathologies that accompany poverty and insecurity, and promotes "agency"--the ability of individuals to control their own lives, make free choices, and act independently. It gives dignity and respect to the individual who otherwise might feel like "a powerless cog in the social machine."

Chapter Six uses the same methods and data to examine the positive impact engendered by government regulation of the economy and the influence of labor unions. while Chapter Seven looks at the comparative impact of those policies across the several states of our union. Analyzing Radcliff's tables and charts, especially in Chapter Five, is a daunting task, especially for readers like myself who elected French and German instead of Statistics as requirements for my doctoral program. This is definitely not "Social Science Research for Dummies," but Radcliff has an all-too-rare knack for translating professional jargon into comprehensible English.  In his concluding chapter, Radcliff summarizes his major conclusions" that Big Government is more capable of providing the maximum amount of vital public services, such as education, health care, and transportation; that more regulation is better than less, because a well regulated economic order promotes individual dignity and respect, while an unregulated one spawns anomie and alienation; that everyone profits from a more generous welfare state, labor laws that protect workers, and from strong unions, regardless of income or social status. 

Totally unrelated to Radcliff's book, a panel of economists,psychologists and other social scientists, convened by the National Academy of Sciences, (which provides government with federal statistics and surveys, normally on income, spending, health and housing) have added a few questions on happiness. Panel chair Arthur Stone, a psychologist at SUNY Stony Brook, explains that "You want to know how people are doing. One of the things you may want to do is ask them." Stone argues that economists have a "misery index" that calculates the economic effects of  unemployment and inflation rates, but doesn't ask people how they feel. The panel suggests a series of questions to measure daily well-being, asking how often you smile, laugh, or are in pain. Sample questions range from simple yes or no.(how much time did you spend with your family yesterday?) to a rating scale from 1 to 10:  ("Overall, how satisfied with your life nowadays?) Over the past decade, according to panel member Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution, such questions have been proven to be scientifically valid and can help shape government policy on basic benefits, such as retirement age and pensions, care for the chronically and terminally ill, unemployment and working conditions. The panel cited a study by one of its Nobel Prize-winning members on commuting problems that helped officials decide whether on not to create commuter toll lanes on highways. The U.S. is seriously retarded in this area, says John Helliwell, an economist at Columbia University who co-directs an institute that studies human well-being. Although 87% of Americans--in one of the very few surveys focusing exclusively on the U.S.--rated themselves as "very" or "pretty" happy, the country ranked 17th, behind a host of northern European countries,Canada, Israel, and Mexico, in a world happiness report directed by Helliwell.. These nations, he suggests, have apparently discovered that "money is not everything."  Many of the richest countries, including the U.S., did not rank in the top ten of self-reported happiness. According to Graham, "having no money is terrible for everything, but after attaining a "comfortable amount of money," more does not add too much. A study in the journal PLoS One used worldwide surveys and found that people became happier as they made more money, but only to a point--just shy of $36,000 for an adult and $144,000 for a family of four. Once people reached that point, their happiness measurements level off, and even go slightly down. Americans  passed that "bliss point" a few years ago, even though income figures don't show nearly that high a household wealth level. Happiness studies, says Helliwell, "keep reminding you that there is much more to life than income and housing."         

It is a widely accepted cliche that if your only tool is a hammer, you treat everything as a nail. By the same logic, if your only tool is THE MARKET, you see everyone and everything as a COMMODITY to be bought and sold, regardless of the consequences to the individual or society. At the very least, we need to greatly expand our conception of "Cost/Benefit Analysis" to include a wide range of criteria--beyond the purely monetary--that accurately measure the quality of human life.