Economic Decline and the Failure of Politics in 2016

I’m over seventy years old, and in my view the 2016 election cycle is easily the strangest, and probably the most historically significant, of my lifetime.  The U.S and world economic and political situation is more dangerous today than it has been at any time since World War II. Economic issues always control elections, but economic issues are so important this year that they are causing radical changes in political orthodoxy. Both of the major political parties in this primary cycle face revolution as voters mount a major revolt against their party establishment’s perspectives and positions.

In the GOP, great numbers of voters are turning to Donald Trump, and many Democratic voters are turning to Bernie Sanders. This year, the New York State primaries are pivotal for both parties, and both of these candidates were campaigning yesterday (April 11) in my home area of Albany, New York. The political firestorm that raced through my home town reaffirmed my impression of the disintegration of “politics as usual” in this campaign cycle.

The new political revolution is bottomed on the failure of the economy. Lurking in the background, however, is the failure of the economics profession, both political parties, the media, and the voting population to fully grasp the danger posed by growing inequality. This has given the contentiousness in the debates of both parties a bizarre character. The Democratic race has been especially unpredictable, because the two candidates agree on the goals but convey a very different sense  of urgency about meeting them.

Despite its overwhelming importance in our lives, everyone avoids the topic of “economics” like the plague. The reason economics is regarded as such a “dismal” topic is that almost no one understands how the economy actually works.  This is not a new problem: In every election cycle, enormous public ignorance and confusion have invited an endless parade of distortions, false claims and misrepresentations by politicians. In an atmosphere in which exaggeration and falsehood are expected, even the most objective media analysts have steered away from directly addressing the factual substance of economic issues: In the heart of any campaign season, it is so much easier for broadcast media chit-chat to focus on voter preferences and delegate counts, and the candidates’ positions on issues are routinely reduced to slogans and sound bites.

This campaign cycle has been no exception, but the result in 2016 has been extremely surreal. The Republican Party is virtually dissolving before our eyes, and the Democratic party is also in a major crisis. The current state of political confusion, and the class warfare that perpetuates it, has resulted in what is shaping up to be the ugliest presidential campaign season since WW II. The reason, I submit, is the gradual decline of our economy over many years and the rebellion, at long last, of the victimized middle- and lower-class income earners against the economic establishment.

The GOP and the Trump Conundrum

The primaries have narrowed the race for the Republican presidential nomination down to a choice between two candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The field has narrowed substantially in the last two months, and Cruz, who eked out a victory in the Iowa caucus on February 1 after Trump boycotted the Fox News debate before the caucus, is now the only viable Trump opponent still standing. Cruz easily won the Wisconsin primary on April 5 when Trump’s popularity began to fade in light of Mitt Romney’s blistering repudiation in early March (here), and the outrage that followed Trump’s interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the eve of the primary, where he argued for punishment of women who get illegal abortions.Trump has also aroused concern about his fitness for the presidency, for reasons like his cavalier support for a nuclear arms race among smaller countries and his argument for the potential offensive use of nuclear weapons.

Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump passed through New York’s Capital District in recent days, as did Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is staying in the race in case of a deadlocked convention. The Albany Times Union extensively reported yesterday’s events, including the “3 cases for change” presented by Kasich, Sanders, and Trump. The newspaper’s “Election 2016 pages reported attendance of 500 at the Kasich rally in Troy, 4,000 at the Sanders rally in Albany, and 15,000 at the Trump rally in Albany. Whatever his prospects for winning the Republican nomination may actually be, Donald Trump is still drawing large crowds to his rallies.  

Ted Cruz passed through the area about a week ago, holding a rally in Scotia (here). Cruz has never been near the top of the GOP preferred list of presidential candidates. He is an extremely right-wing “tea party” libertarian, highly unpopular within his own party, who would think nothing of shutting down the government, come hell or high water. He is a religious fanatic who supports government by biblical law (here). From his perspective, federal taxes on the wealthy and corporations cannot be too low, and his stump speech in Scotia reiterated his proposal for a regressive flat tax. Regardless, some Republican voters see Cruz as the only viable alternative at this point. An attendee at the Scotia rally from Clifton Park, Rich Rivetz, was quoted as saying: “Trump is psychotic and Kasich doesn’t have a chance, so there you have it.”

Donald Trump’s popularity in this primary season, despite his many drawbacks, has an anti-establishment  economic explanation: As the GOP establishment disintegrates, the middle-aged, working-class, white male segment of its base, the locus of the party’s racists, malcontents, and misogynists, has gravitated to Trump and, until recently, Trump’s supporters have been impervious to his lack of political maturity. These voters are hearing from Trump what they have been waiting for someone to say, namely, that the GOP establishment has sold them out, pandering for their support while reneging on its promise to create jobs and raise incomes. They are hurting economically, and as their incomes and standard of living steadily decline they are, at long last, starting to see themselves as victims of the corporate oligarchy that runs the GOP and the country. Consider this succinct summary by Michael Maiello in “The Republican Civil War Has Begun,” Rolling Stone, March 25, 2016 (here):

The conservative intelligentsia – the collection of free traders, tax cutters and government shrinkers who have dictated the Republican Party’s agenda since the Eighties – have had it with the losers of globalization who make up a significant portion of the party’s base: the white males of modest education who have been most full-throated in their support of Donald Trump.

In the mainstream organs like the op-ed pages of The New York Times or the editorials of The Wall Street Journal, right-wing columnists might support using the Republican convention process to deny Trump the nomination, but they discuss it in language that offers some respect to the legitimate anger of Trump’s supporters. Last week, David Brooks tried to play nice (here), writing, “Well, some respect is in order. Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams.”

Brooks’ niceties will prove too weak a dam to hold back the anger that conservative intellectuals indulge with every Trump victory. The Trump supporters might register Republican and have been counted on to vote the party’s way in past elections (flirting for a while with Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, then voting for George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole against the hated Bill Clinton in the general) but they are, from the point of view of right-leaning think tanks, pretty lousy conservatives.

Trump’s appeal, remarkably, seems to extend across the entire base of Republican and Independent voters, despite his obvious shortcomings: Economic adversity is not limited to middle-aged white male voters, and Trump is likely gaining broad support for his attack on the undemocratic nature of the primary delegate selection process. The Democratic Party faces the same problem, of course: In American politics, there never has been a guarantee that a party’s most popular candidate will get the party’s nomination.

The GOP Strategy for Success

But there is a more fundamental explanation for Trump’s popularity. The GOP is a minority party: Gallup figures released in January 2015 (here) revealed that in 2014 a record 43% of voters identified as Independent, with 30% identifying as Democrat and 26% as Republican.Because it represents and promotes the interests of only about 1% of voters, it is remarkable that the GOP has been able to control the U.S. Congress as much as it has over the years.

In the days of monarchies, when political power was inherited, economic inequality could be imposed by force. In a “democracy,” however, the masses must be swindled into supporting policies against their own interests. The GOP has accomplished that feat with a combination of strategies, including deflection away from economic issues, and catering to all forms of social and religious prejudice and discontent, such as racial bigotry and opposition to women’s rights. On issues where facts are important but reality gets in the way, such as climate change, the GOP has been known for its lies and hypocrisy.Since the Reagan Administration, there has been a persistent GOP call for lower taxes on the rich and their corporations. Republicans have used a perversion of economics known as “voodoo economics” – a “trickle-down” fantasy supporting ever more tax reductions at the top. Every Republican candidate for the presidency this year supports lower taxes for the rich and for corporations.

Controlling U.S. taxation has not been enough to satisfy the ultra-rich, however. In the last few years substantial evidence has emerged of tax avoidance on a massive scale, totaling many trillions of dollars, as corporations have moved their legal residences out of the country, and massive sums are secretly placed in off-shore accounts (See, e.g., “Don’t Blame Panama. Tax Evasion is a Global Problem,” by Juan Carlos Varela, President of Panama, here).

The help of mainstream economics has been enlisted to persuade people that the wealthy can get wealthier without limit, with no harm to anyone else. Only the widespread aversion to the “dismal science” has permitted this fairly obvious falsehood to go unrecognized. But even ordinary people with no background in economics are beginning to see clearly that the oligarchy has gone too far. Inequality growth is way out of control, and people are enduring its effects. The wonder is not that the GOP is losing the support of the base it has betrayed, but that it has taken this long for the political revolution to take place.

The Democratic Dilemma

A Salada tea bag I have seen several times, the latest being on a work break today, says that: “Among economists, the real world is often a special case.” That puts it mildly: We’ve been deeply misled, for more than 120 years, by an elitist ideology called “neoclassical” economics, an ideology in which assumptions and presumptions are routinely substituted for real world evidence. I’ve been researching, writing, and blogging about this problem, and about the enormous threat posed by income inequality, for more than four years. Our popular attachment to bad ideology has been so profound that, I fear, that realistic, fact-based perspectives on how the economy really works will not coalesce rapidly enough to avoid the collapse of the U.S. economy into an even deeper depression. The forces that create inequality are still at work, unabated, and the process is accelerating. The collapse of our political orthodoxy is a symptom of that process.

With the GOP disintegrating, the Democratic Party ought to have a reasonable opportunity not only to win the Presidency in November, but also to regain control of both houses of Congress. Then the United States might be able to moonwalk back from the brink of economic disaster. However, there have been recent signs of discord and confusion within the Democratic party as well.

It is fair to say that before the primaries began, Hillary Clinton expected to win the Democratic nomination fairly easily, and that the enormous success of the Sanders campaign has been as unexpected as the success of the Trump campaign. Sanders, who lost narrowly in the Iowa caucuses, has won most of the primaries since Super Tuesday. He won in Michigan on March 8, and he won five straight primaries before winning by a large margin in Wisconsin on April 5 (here). A breakdown of the voting in Wisconsin reported by the New York Times helps understand why:

  • The Wisconsin voters cited the economy as their top concern
  • On the issues, voters significantly favored Sanders who were most concerned about income inequality (66%/34%), the economy and jobs (54%/46%), and health care (53%/47%), as did those who were concerned about the effect of international trade on U.S. jobs (54%/45%). Voters who were most afraid about terrorist attacks leaned toward Clinton (56%/43%), as did those who felt the U.S. role in world affairs should increase (55%/44%). Those who want the U.S. to be less active in world affairs favored Sanders (74%/25%).
  • Age was a huge factor. The youngest reported age group, 18-29, overwhelmingly supported Sanders (81%/18%), as did the 30-44 age group (66%/33%), while the 45-64 age group leaned toward Clinton (54%/46%) and the 65 and older group overwhelmingly supported Clinton (63%/37%).
  • Women favored Clinton 50%/49%, but men favored Sanders 63%/36%.

Clinton was stung by the extent of her loss to Sanders in Wisconsin, and with a new sense of desperation, her campaign developed a plan to win the primary contest in her adoptive home state of New York which was reported by CNN on April 6 in this report: “Clinton plan: Defeat Sanders, then unify Democratic party.” According to the report:

The Clinton campaign has been watching these Wisconsin results come in, and the delegate race of course is tight there, but the reality is they’re running out of patience. So they’re going to begin deploying a new strategy, it’s going to be called disqualify him, defeat him and then they can unify the party later. Disqualify him, defeat him, and unify the party later.

            The Gun Control Issue

As reported in the Albany Times Union  on April 7, The AP reported on the initial thrust of this strategy:

Armed with a blistering tabloid cover, Hillary Clinton is pitting Bernie Sanders against the parents of children murdered in Sandy Hook, part of an effort to punch her way into the critical New York primary.

The inflammatory rhetoric underscores the importance of the April 19 New York contest to her campaign and the mounting frustration of Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, with the lingering primary battle.

That irritation spilled out into the public arena Wednesday, when Clinton released a flurry of attacks on Sanders, questioning his truthfulness, preparedness for the presidency and loyalty to Democratic party principles.

The Sandy Hook massacre was used in an attempt to characterize Sanders as opposed to gun control and unsympathetic to victims of gun violence. The AP article continued:

During an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday morning, Clinton pointed to a New York Daily News cover criticizing Sanders for saying he did not think victims of a gun crime should be able to sue the manufacturer. His comments came when the newspaper’s editorial board asked him about a wrongful death lawsuit against a rifle maker over the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “That he would place gun manufacturers’ rights and immunity from liability against the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook is just unimaginable to me,” said Clinton, who has long sought to highlight the candidates’ differences on guns.

In the interview with the Daily News editorial board, Sanders said he did not think gun crime victims should be able to sue gun manufacturers. But he did say people should be able to sue dealers and manufacturers who sell when they know “guns are going to the hands of wrong people.” He also said he supported a ban on assault weapons.

This article correctly reported Sanders’ reaction. In my opinion, this was a cheap shot by the Daily News on behalf of the Clinton campaign. I watched the interview, and the Daily News editorial staff was clearly gunning for Sanders, looking for a sound bite that could be used to suggest that Sanders was opposed to gun control.  In response to a question about his views on gun control, Sanders replied that his gun control agenda is the same as Obama’s: He supports efforts to strengthen and expand background checks, to do away with the gun show loophole, and to eliminate the ability to buy a gun legally and sell it to someone who is a criminal.

Sanders was then asked about the Connecticut lawsuit in which the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are attempting to sue the manufacturer of the assault rifle used in the massacre. After Sanders clarified that the precise question he was asked was whether he believes victims of gun violence should “be able to sue” gun manufacturers, he said “No, I do not.” At that point the interviewer, having obtained his desired sound bite, tried to move on: “I know we’re short on time – two quick questions. Your website talks about…” But Sanders continued, finishing his answer: “But I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of the wrong people. So somebody walks in and says, ‘I’d like ten thousand rounds of ammunition, you know, there might be grounds for that suit. But if you sell me a legal product — what you’re really saying…” The interviewer interrupted at that point, asking whether the AR-15 assault rifle “should never have been in the hands of the public to begin with.” Sanders answered unequivocally, “I do not support the sale of assault weapons in the United States.”

Sander’s record on gun control has been thoroughly vetted, as the Daily News editors must have known. In the CNN Democratic Primary debate in Las Vegas on October 13, 2015, for example, Sanders said: “Bernie Sanders has a D-minus voting rating from the NRA. Back in 1988, when I first ran for Congress, I supported a ban on assault weapons,” and he lost that election.

For me, this episode with irresponsible journalism by the Daily News editorial board marked a low point in the Democratic primaries. Shortly thereafter, Sanders made his now famous statement that Hillary Clinton is not “qualified” to be president. That unfortunate comment was made with reference to the big donations her PAC receives from corporate donors, but nonetheless, it was a very poor choice of words. Sanders has since retracted that statement.

Although there are signs in the last few days that the solidarity the Democratic Party needs to win in November may be repairing, the New York primary is crucial to both candidates, and we’ll have to see how the Clinton/Sanders debate goes Friday evening in Brooklyn.

The Crucial Economic Issues

Paul Krugman, Hillary Clinton’s economic adviser, has dangerously contributed to this divisiveness, hawking for the Clinton campaign.  In “Sanders Over the Edge,” New York Times, April 8, 2016 (here) Krugman harshly condemned Sanders:

On many major issues — including the signature issues of his campaign, especially financial reform — he seemed to go for easy slogans over hard thinking. And his political theory of change, his waving away of limits, seemed utterly unrealistic.

In my last post on this blog, I pointed out how Krugman teamed and other mainstream economists in the Democratic Party establishment to improperly attribute an unrealistic Congressional Budget Office economic growth projection to Gerald Friedman, the Sanders campaign’s economic adviser. The argument was that Sanders is making promises that cannot be kept, and that the Clinton plan – which is essentially to move slowly on economic reforms – is the sensible approach to take. That was an erroneous critique, however, and it seriously misrepresented the Sanders economic report. Krugman appears to be alluding to that critique here with his argument that Sanders is “waving away” limits.

In this article, Krugman lashes out at the proposal to break up the big banks with a dubious argument that the crisis in the Crash of 2008 centered on “shadow banks” that “weren’t necessarily that big.” Krugman says that “pounding the table about big banks misses the point.” Frankly, Krugman has missed the point about the growth of income inequality all along, claiming in his 2012 book that inequality is just a “political” problem. And it was not the smaller shadow banks that had to be bailed out by taxpayers after the Crash of 2008. The wealthy investment class recovered their losses after the Crash, but lower-income classes, which lost an estimated $7 trillion, have not recovered. The cost to taxpayers is a major point that Krugman is missing, and it is a big reason for the success so far of the Sanders and Trump campaigns against the respective party establishments.

The Krugman piece goes downhill from there. He argues:

[T]he way Mr. Sanders is now campaigning raises serious character and values issues. It’s one thing for the Sanders campaign to point to Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street connections, which are real, although the question should be whether they have distorted her positions, a case the campaign has never even tried to make.

Seriously? It is up to Hillary Clinton to demonstrate that her Wall Street connections have not conflicted her abilities and judgments as president. Big donors always expect to have influence, whether they are giving to presidential or Congressional campaigns. There is no mystery about that.

Krugman ends his rant with an irresponsible suggestion that Bernie Sanders might “join the ‘Bernie or bust’ crowd, walking away and possibly helping put Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the White House.” What “Bernie or bust” crowd? This is a figment of Krugman’s imagination, and a petulant insult to Sanders and his supporters, and it seems to be a part of the campaign to “disqualify” Sanders and unify the party later: No one who wants economic improvement would ever vote for a Republican and for more trickle-down economic policy.

Hillary Clinton does understand that trickle-down doesn’t work, but she and her economic adviser need to know a lot more about the economics of inequality. Wealth is transferring to the top by the hundreds of billions each of dollars year, and well over $20 trillion has transferred to the top since 1980. This continuing inequality growth trend means that any benefit that might be achieved by raising the minimum wage will be swamped by the growth wealth and income losses from increased inequality.

I realize that this distributional perspective on economics is still relatively new, but Paul Krugman has had plenty of time to learn about the effects of inequality. When he was interviewed by the BBC three years ago, he refused to offer any explanation for his disagreement with Joseph Stiglitz on the issue. In my view, a true progressive would have shown more sympathy with the victims of inequality all along.

Attacking inequality is what the Sanders campaign is all about, and as I argued recently in a short letter to the editor of the Albany Times Union, (here) that should be the salient issue in this campaign. Hillary Clinton, should she win the nomination and go on to be President of the United States, will discover the truth about inequality economics soon enough, after a great deal more economic damage has been done. It is Paul Krugman, not Bernie Sanders, who is behaving irresponsibly.

JMH – 4/13/2016




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