Friday, June 14, 2013

Sequestration persists because it only affects the bottom tier of American welfare

Image: Beneficiaries of the bottom tier of the American welfare system (source)

Updated below

Over at Wonkblog, Brad Plumer has a very instructive round-up of Americans starting to wake up and notice the sequester.  According to survey data, an increasing minority of Americans are feeling the sequester's impact.  Some are even feeling a "major impact."

While his round-up is based on media reports and should not be considered a complete summary of everyone affected by the sequester, the examples he has unearthed are extremely telling.  Watch how, in every case he cites, the sequester only affects a small group of politically underrepresented Americans--that is, it only affects the bottom tier of America's two-tiered welfare system.  That is why the sequester will persist--not because its effects aren't bad, but because it only affects groups lacking in political influence.  If anyone doubts that fact, note that Plumer starts by pointing out that cuts to air traffic controllers were quickly reversed.  Obviously, a cut that inconveniences air travelers is a cut that affects the rich but not the poor.  Obviously, our political system cannot permit such a cut, and it was quickly reversed.  At the end, he also notes that cuts to meat inspections have been reversed; any cut that could potentially kill rich people (or at least give them diarrhea) can obviously not be permitted, either.  That it also benefits poor people is incidental to it helping the rich.

Here are the examples cited:

Cuts to Head Start--A clear strike to the bottom tier of American welfare.  What interest could the American plutocracy possibly have in whether or not very poor children get early childhood education (despite, as Plumer points out, how penny-wise and pound-foolish these cuts are)?  The rich can buy out of the public system for early childhood education, and pay for private services.

Cuts to public defenders--Let's not forget that legal representation is a basic constitutional right--but why would the American plutocracy care if poor people are having difficulties obtaining legal representation?  They can simply buy out of public legal representation, hiring private lawyers--attorneys who are not overworked and can actually spend adequate time on their case.  This, of course, on top of the fact that laws are not enforced on the rich, only everyone below them.

Cuts to public housing--The people responsible for making these decisions do not need assistance purchasing housing.  Unlike the targets of these cuts, they will never be homeless.

Cuts to a Michigan program that gives poor children an allowance to buy clothing--Shared sacrifice, right?

Cuts to National Parks--Who needs the National Parks System with their convenient locations all over the country, affordable entrance fees, and free educational and guide programs when you could just drop thousands of dollars vacationing in Bermuda?  Why spend the money to protect American natural beauty when one can easily fly to Costa Rica to see their nature preserves?

Cuts to benefits for military families (like education for military children)--For years, the United States has burdened a very small portion of Americans with its military adventures and wars of choice.  This was true with President Clinton, and it was/is more true with President G.W. Bush and President Obama (remember, Obama wanted to continue the war in Iraq and would have succeeded were it not for a Wikileaks cable revealing a heinous war crime committed by American forces, making it politically impossible for the Iraqi Parliament to agree to extending the war).  Does anyone seriously think that the people who brought you the war in Iraq based on a series of lies actually care about the well being of our military personnel?  They may talk a great game about patriotism and supporting the troops, but sending thousands of our troops to die unnecessarily in a foreign country that was no threat to us is not supporting our troops.  American plutocrats have forced such great and unnecessary suffering on this group of people already; why should they avoid the opportunity to heap further unnecessary suffering upon them?

Let's not forget that Donald Rumsfeld's hand-picked commission concluded in 2004 that noting puts our troops in greater risk than American policies.  This continues to be true today.  Real support of our troops is advocating an end to these dangerous and counterproductive policies, not cutting their children's education.

Ending the war in Afghanistan would go a long way to improving our budget outlook; that there is a 1% consensus on extending this war is further proof that our political system has no interest in budget deficits, save exploiting fears about them to justify these sorts of cuts.

Cuts to federal agencies, such as the IRS--A cut that makes it more difficult to catch the already rampant tax cheating among the wealthy sounds like a feature, not a bug.

Cuts to Unemployment Insurance--Unemployment Insurance is a universal program that rich and poor alike can benefit from if they get laid off.  But the rich worry very little about getting laid off, remaining unemployed for very long, or being seriously financially burdened by a layoff.  Instead, they worry about the unemployed being too lazy to get jobs, despite the fact that there are currently more than three job seekers for every one job opening.  In every sector of employment there are more job seekers than job openings, so switching careers will not improve an unemployed person's situation.

Plumer admits that his last example, cancer clinics turning down Medicare patients, is probably not due to the sequester.  But even if it was, the consolation prize is obvious: this fact can be marshaled in support of voucherizing Medicare.  That would be the ultimate winning by confusing--cut Medicare, blame the Medicare model on the consequences of those cuts, then use anger at the consequences to destroy Medicare by voucherizing it.

In the end, this shows the essential wisdom of keeping public welfare on two tiers.  If everyone's legal services or everyone's health care or everyone's early childhood education was affected, everyone would be outraged and fight back.  But when cuts can be limited to programs that only help small, politically underrepresented groups, outrage will be muted.  Most people will never notice cuts to Head Start or military children's education, and that is the goal: divide and conquer.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the sequester was designed to hurt the poor more than the rich.  It does so by cutting spending, which primarily benefits the poor, while not cutting any of the trillions of dollars (over decades) in tax breaks, which primarily benefit the rich.

I've added the tag "liberal Democrat myth" to this post to emphasize the point that President Obama and the Democrats had a clear opportunity to fight back against these cuts, but chose not to:

Democrats had other choices, of course. As Politico’s Glenn Thrush pointed out on MSNBC Friday, President Obama could’ve vetoed the FAA bill while standing at a Head Start that’s about to throw needy children out of the program. He could’ve vetoed it from the home of an jobless worker who just saw her benefits cut. Democrats could simply have insisted that the powerful can’t get out of sequestration unless the powerless can, too. But they didn’t — and they show no signs that they’ll start.

This blockquote comes from a piece written by Ezra Klein arguing that the Democrats have "lost" on sequestration.

Recall the Democrats’ original theory of the case: Sequestration was supposed to be so threatening that Republicans would agree to a budget deal that included tax increases rather than permit it to happen. That theory was wrong. The follow-up theory was that the actual pain caused by sequestration would be so great that it would, in a matter of months, push the two sides to agree to a deal. Democrats just proved that theory wrong, too.

In effect, what Democrats said Friday was that in any case where the political pain caused by sequestration becomes unbearable, they will agree to cancel that particular piece of the bill while leaving the rest of the law untouched. The result is that sequestration is no longer particularly politically threatening, but it’s even more unbalanced: Cuts to programs used by the politically powerful will be addressed, but cuts to programs that affects the politically powerless will persist. It’s worth saying this clearly: The pain of sequestration will be concentrated on those who lack political power.

Obviously, by pursuing this strategy, the Democrats are efficiently minimizing the chance that the sequestration cuts to the poor get reversed.  It goes without saying that a liberal president would have fought to protect antipoverty programs; if he could issue the Republicans a public relations embarrassment by vetoing it at Head Start classroom about to shutter, a liberal president would not have hesitated.  A Senate with a majority of liberals would not have passed this bill; they would have filibustered if necessary.  If a political blogger can come up with the winning strategy in an afternoon, certainly the President of the United States has the staff to divine the winning strategy as well.  Democrats haven't lost; they've obviously gotten the policy outcome they wanted.  Why else would they willingly participate?

Given this, it's impossible to conclude that poverty reduction really is a goal of Democrats.  They might support Head Start or WIC, but only if it doesn't inconvenience rich people.  It may be impossible to sum up the Democrat position better than their reversal of FAA cuts: giving food to hungry infants and education for poor children must take a back seat to inconveniencing for air travelers.  When Democrats voice their support for poverty reduction, remember just how weak that support is.


  1. Depressing but well expressed. My thoughts exactly as I was reading the WP article.

    Great work on this blog. I look forward to more posts.

    BTW, do you think many if not all of the problems discussed here would be solved if politicians were required to undergo psychological testing with those classified as sociopaths banned from holding office?

    1. I don't blame the poor for their situation; I blame the structures they find themselves in. As our welfare policies have taught us, trying to fix individuals when the systems they are immersed in are to blame does very little good.

      There are genuine exceptions (here is an example I wrote about), but we're all human and the American ruling class is no different than the American poor. Members of the ruling class are rarely acting in bad faith but rather responding to the systems they are immersed in. I addressed this idea tangentially here, and I'm working on a longer piece about this very issue. However, suffice it to say that very few people do harm intending to do harm, or believing they are actually doing harm. They are subject to the same cognitive biases as everyone else and are doing what almost anyone in that same situation would do.