Friday, July 01, 2005

Economic interests of majority may not be served by voting Democratic

That, at least, is the conclusion of economist Stephen Rose, whose latest paper, "Talking about Social Class: Are the Economic Interests of the Majority of Americans with the Democratic Party?", is linked to in the title and discussed in a post from Donkey Rising. I'm posting this having given the paper only a cursory look, but I've long suspected that the widespread belief, voiced most recently by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?, that most Republican voters are voting against their economic interests, is missing something. Rose attempts to quantify the number of voters who benefit economically from policies generally supported by Democrats--social safety net programs, curbs on corporate power, and other governmental programs. Adding up these groups does not result in a majority who would benefit from Democratic policies. I am uneasy about his methodology (and I need to read the paper more carefully), but I think Rose is on to something important here.


christian_left said...

I looked at the original Steve Rose piece and was unimpressed. I thought the author would have conducted some kind of systematic analysis to estimate the actual economic effects of various policies supported or opposed by the two parties. But instead, the whole thing is just a hornet's nest of speculations and unsourced statements of "fact" mixed with half-baked analysis.

The author seems to confuse two separate questions: 1) What proportion of the population has its economic interests served by Democratic policies? 2) What proportion of the population thinks that its overall interests, defined broadly, are served by voting Democratic? The first question is provocative and interesting, and is suggested by the paper's title. It is not, however, the question that is answered by much of the analysis, which is the second one.

Thus, for example, in a discussion of Bush's tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, we get the following banal statement: "Differential tax cuts did not have that strong an effect because low- and middle-income people don’t see the huge tax refunds for the rich as money coming out of their pocket." Okay, no objection, I've heard that one before. But given that the rest of the taxable population (current or future) has to make up the difference, then how is it in the economic interests of the majority to cut taxes on the rich?

The absurdity of the author's confounding of actual economic interest vs. perception is joined by a lack of evidence sourcing for dubious claims. Thus, in a brief, simplistic discussion of global trade agreements, the author states: "The argument that increasing globalization always leads to job losses and earnings declines is not supported by history or economic theory."

First of all, in a paper on actual, real-world economic interests, I don't give a Fig what "economic theory" says. But second, the author's claim about the effects of "globalization" (by this nebulous phrase, the author apparently means NAFTA, WTO, etc.) in history is a weasel tactic. Okay, now obviously it is easy to falsify an absolute statement that globalization "always" leads to job losses...I'm sure that the author or anyone else can dredge up a few counter-examples from some time in history. But that's not the point. One would think that he would supply some citations to empirical evidence that recent trade agreements (NAFTA?) have led to net job gains. Interesting that he doesn't. While I'm sure the issue is contentious among researchers, I believe that overall NAFTA has indeed led to some job losses in the USA. Moreover, according to all the polls I've ever seen, a majority of working Americans seem to believe that NAFTA and other similar agreements have cost jobs. So, after all, the left populist position may actually be better for the majority in BOTH the actual economic interest sense and in popular perception!

One could go through the author's points systematically (health care??!!) and show how most of them are misconceived. I am surprised that someone whose observations are usually so astute such as Ruy Teixeira would encourage people to read this poorly reasoned, incoherent analysis.

All that said, I do think there is a valuable lesson behind all of this, and that is how much the Democrats' rejection of populism during the 80s and 90s has muddied the waters (Clinton's support of NAFTA, for example) to make it less clear to working-class voters that voting Democratic is in their interests. THAT is the real issue, and kudos to Thomas Frank (whose arguments the author explicitly tries to refute, but to my eyes utterly unconvincingly) and others for saying it.

christian_left said...

Another example refuting Steve Rose's idiotic analysis has just been put out by William Greider:

Ambivalentmaybe said...

A reply to the Rose piece by Alan Abramowitz at Donkey Rising is here.

Ambivalent_Maybe said...

Well, I have to agree that Steve Rose's arguments are less than convincing. And certainly one of the main problems for the Democratic party is that it is often difficult to differentiate its positions on economic policy from the Republicans. But I still suspect that economic interests alone will not move many voters from the R to the D column, unless the economy suffers a severe downturn.