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Matt Miller: The Primaries Prove the Voters Like Enablers

May 19th, 2010 . by economistmom

In the Washington Post, Matt Miller asks “What do the primaries mean?”…and then he responds “Beats me.” But Matt reveals a lot more than he takes credit for, when he leads off with the following (emphasis added):

I know I could lose my pundit’s license for saying this, but I have no idea what Tuesday’s elections mean. Yes, of course, they mean “incumbents beware” — unless you’re an incumbent like Ron Wyden of Oregon, who skated easily to victory. Or maybe they mean voters want Washington to get serious about our out-of-control deficits — except that Tea Party poster boy Rand Paul opposes cuts in Medicare, the biggest source of our spending woes, and Pennsylvania victor Joe Sestak says we can fix the budget without raising taxes on anyone but the rich, which isn’t true. Which also cuts against the theory that voters want “answers” from Washington.

What these candidates seem to have in common is their talent in perpetuating the delusion of many Americans that the budget deficit is the fault of “the establishment” in Washington–and has nothing to do with what they themselves have demanded from that “establishment” in terms of tax cuts or government programs, or their unwillingness to pay for those desires.

Matt concludes that whatever is going on right now, it’s a familiar pattern that we tend to see every two years or so, as voters repeat the familiar, “not my fault” script:

What these trends portend is lasting voter frustration as it dawns on a widening swath of Americans that the perquisites of middle-class life, and the prospects of upward mobility for their children, may elude them. These strains won’t change in the two years before the next election, or in the two years after that, or the in two after that, unless policies are introduced that go radically beyond the boundaries of current debate. Instead we’ll see a cycle in which voters take stock every two years and say: “My insurance premiums are still going up — we still can’t save enough for college, let alone for retirement — and you people in charge haven’t fixed any of this!”

Yep.  Americans sure love those politicians that enable them to shun personal responsibility and remain in that state of dysfunctional denial where nothing is their fault and everyone else is to blame.  I think that’s a big part of what these primaries tell us.  That doesn’t bode well for getting a new crop of politicians who will actually improve the very situation the voters claim to be complaining about.

6 Responses to “Matt Miller: The Primaries Prove the Voters Like Enablers”

  1. comment number 1 by: Michael

    However, Rand Paul is in favor of extending the retirement age for social security. Doesn’t actually fit Mr. Miller’s characterization of him, does it?

    What other politician has the courage to actually propose a real solution rather than blabber on about “eliminating waste and inefficiencies”?

    Regards,
    Michael

  2. comment number 2 by: VAT Brat

    Diane wrote - “Americans sure love those politicians that enable them to shun personal responsibility and remain in that state of dysfunctional denial where nothing is their fault and everyone else is to blame.”

    And how do we cure that dysfunctional denial present in the electorate? A Debt Limit Referendum would do it.

    Make the voters responsible for approving Congress’ requests for increasing the public debt ceiling.

    At the state level there is not nearly the same level of fiscal irresponsibility that we see at the federal level. That should tell you something. The lesson is that is a structural defect in the federal government’s incentives and operations. The same voters elect representatives at the state and federal levels, yet we see vastly different fiscal outcomes.

    Because a balanced budget amendment is not practical or enforceable at the federal level, the best way to constrain outrageous levels of deficit spending is with a Debt Limit Referendum.

    Sorry to be a Johnny One Note, folks. I just haven’t heard any better ideas. We won’t get the right policies enacted until we change the incentives offered to politicians by the voters.

  3. comment number 3 by: SteveinCH

    Not sure why you think a BBA is not enforceable. As for practical, to me it’s at least as practical as the referendum approach you have described many times.

  4. comment number 4 by: VAT Brat

    SteveinCH:

    For critiques of a BBA and its enforceability, visit http://www.cbpp.org/archiveSite/bba.htm and Bruce Bartlett at http://capitalgainsandgames.com/blog/bruce-bartlett/1462/tim-pawlenty-not-ready-prime-time )

    I welcome written critiques of the Debt Limit Referendum (DLR). Please send them to david@thepeoplesdebt.com . I’m not sure what is impractical about a DLR, but I’d like to find out.

  5. comment number 5 by: Jim Glass

    What these candidates seem to have in common is their talent in perpetuating the delusion of many Americans that the budget deficit is the fault of “the establishment” in Washington…

    Well, it is no delusion. It’s true. Who writes the budgets?

    With a Republican form of government the people are presumed ignorant on most issues (and boy they sure are, do I need to cite surveys?) and to rely upon the judgment of their elected leaders, who study the issues, become fully informed, and act wisely for the public good.

    So for generations these leaders have acted in their own self-interest by selling out the future to get more votes at the moment, and then, as to the uninformed public, what’s the word? … lying about it.

    Date it back to 1940 when Congress converted Social Security from FDR’s original funded, actuarially-sound version to unfunded paygo, FDR vetoed the change, FDR’s head of SS Arthur Altmeyer pleaded with Congress to uphold the veto because turning SS paygo would unfairly slash its value to younger workers and ultimately bankrupt it, the Congressional leadership told him “maybe so, but it won’t happen on our watch”, and they then over-rode the veto.

    Was that the fault of the voting public or of “the establishment” in Washington?

    It hasn’t stopped since.

    Americans sure love those politicians that enable them to shun personal responsibility and remain in that state of dysfunctional denial…

    Hello? You are kidding yourself about reality here. Go visit the AARP discussion boards (as I have suggested before). You’ll find that those voting Americans, who are the most politically driven and influential on all this, really believe entitlements are fully earned and paid for by the taxes they’ve paid their whole lives. They are not “in denial” about anything. They truly believe it.

    Why would they believe such a thing? Because they have been told it their entire lives. I still have clip files of Al Gore running for President yelling out to the crowd “That’s your money in the Social Security Trust Fund!” The list of such is endless.

    But rather than give it, I’ll ask for counterexamples. Does anybody know any politician of the last 40 years who has made a name by going to AARP conventions and such forums saying: “You all are paying in taxes only a small portion of the benefits being promised. This means that unavoidably either big tax increases or big cuts to benefits are coming. Or both! This can’t last!”

    Hmmm, can’t think of any such elected leader? Not even one?? Well, we always have Paul Samuelson in Newsweek promising the American voters that social insurance entitlements are to be praised as “A Ponzi Scheme That Works”.

    So after decades of this entirely one-sided presentation by our Esteemed Political Leaders, what are the American people to believe?

    You and I both have children and know that knowledge-wise they start off with blank slates. Imagine that, to benefit myself in some way, I tell my children a lie from the day they are born and repeat it to them their entire lives. So they grow up believing it. In the end is that belief their fault, not mine? Are you really going to blame them for being my “enablers”?

    That doesn’t bode well for getting a new crop of politicians who will actually improve the very situation …

    Of course not — why would the politicians today want to announce to the voters: “Hey, we soon are going to have to up your taxes big time *and* slash your benefits too — and we knew this day was coming all along, we admit we’ve just been lying to you about it until now to get ourselves re-elected…”?

    Who wants to ever voluntarily take the pain from ‘fessing up to lying? Children put it off until the last unavoidable moment, adults put it off until the last unavoidable moment … politicians don’t?

    The politicians are doing the exact same thing today that they’ve done since Altmeyer’s day — kicking the “responsibility” can down the road, figuring the bill will land on some other guy’s watch.

    Economists too! Dean Baker, any debt is manageable. James Galbraith, the threat of the debt is “zero”. Paul Krugman, 180 degrees from doom! doom! to things are no worse than than they were for Ozzie & Harriet.

    So the American people, who on the whole know nothing about economics and the federal budget, decide in large part to believe 60 years worth of their political leaders’ proclamations, plus the wisdom of noted economists from Samuelson to Baker, Galbraith, etc.

    Who’s fault is that, really?

    How is that the fault of the average voter, and not the fault of the self-interested, self-serving “establishment” in Washington?

  6. comment number 6 by: AMTbuff

    Jim, that was superbly written, as always, but IMHO this time you missed the mark. The fault isn’t with the voters or the politicians. Our system is set up so that lying, short-sighted politicians will almost always win. I would expect any democratic system to have this flaw.

    Two and a half centuries ago, an obscure Scotsman named Tytler said it best: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”

    This may sound as if I’m blaming the founders of the United States, but I’m not. At least not until someone devises a structure that is more durable than the one they gave us in 1787. Political forces have eroded the US Constitution, legislating and “interpreting” its limits out of the way so that government could expand its role, especially in transferring wealth. I doubt that anything would have stopped these forces.

    In other words, you might as well complain about the effects of gravity. Better instead to prepare to deal with them.