Saturday, January 15, 2005
Friday, January 14, 2005
January 14, 2005
The British Evasion
By PAUL KRUGMAN
We must end Social Security as we know it, the Bush administration says, to meet the fiscal burden of paying benefits to the baby boomers. But the most likely privatization scheme would actually increase the budget deficit until 2050. By then the youngest surviving baby boomer will be 86 years old.
Even then, would we have a sustainable retirement system? Not bloody likely.
Pardon my Britishism, but Britain's 20-year experience with privatization is a cautionary tale Americans should know about.
The U.S. news media have provided readers and viewers with little information about how privatization has worked in other countries. Now my colleagues have even fewer excuses: there's an illuminating article on the British experience in The American Prospect, www.prospect.org, by Norma Cohen, a senior corporate reporter at The Financial Times who covers pension issues.
Her verdict is summed up in her title: "A Bloody Mess." Strong words, but her conclusions match those expressed more discreetly in a recent report by Britain's Pensions Commission, which warns that at least 75 percent of those with private investment accounts will not have enough savings to provide "adequate pensions."
The details of British privatization differ from the likely Bush administration plan because the starting point was different. But there are basic similarities. Guaranteed benefits were cut; workers were expected to make up for these benefit cuts by earning high returns on their private accounts.
The selling of privatization also bore a striking resemblance to President Bush's crisis-mongering. Britain had a retirement system that was working quite well, but conservative politicians issued grim warnings about the distant future, insisting that privatization was the only answer.
The main difference from the current U.S. situation was that Britain was better prepared for the transition. Britain's system was backed by extensive assets, so the government didn't have to engage in a four-decade borrowing spree to finance the creation of private accounts. And the Thatcher government hadn't already driven the budget deep into deficit before privatization even began.
Even so, it all went wrong. "Britain's experiment with substituting private savings accounts for a portion of state benefits has been a failure," Ms. Cohen writes. "A shorthand explanation for what has gone wrong is that the costs and risks of running private investment accounts outweigh the value of the returns they are likely to earn."
Many Britons were sold badly designed retirement plans on false pretenses. Companies guilty of "mis-selling" were eventually forced to pay about $20 billion in compensation. Fraud aside, the fees paid to financial managers have been a major problem: "Reductions in yield resulting from providers' charges," the Pensions Commission says, "can absorb 20-30 percent of an individual's pension savings."
American privatizers extol the virtues of personal choice, and often accuse skeptics of being elitists who believe that the government makes better choices than individuals. Yet when one brings up Britain's experience, their story suddenly changes: they promise to hold costs down by tightly restricting the investments individuals can make, and by carefully regulating the money managers. So much for trusting the people.
Never mind; their promises aren't credible. Even if the initial legislation tightly regulated investments by private accounts, it would immediately be followed by intense lobbying to loosen the rules. This lobbying would come both from the usual ideologues and from financial companies eager for fees. In fact, the lobbying has already started: the financial services industry has contributed lavishly to next week's inaugural celebrations.
Meanwhile, there is a growing consensus in Britain that privatization must be partly reversed. The Confederation of British Industry - the equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - has called for an increase in guaranteed benefits to retirees, even if taxes have to be raised to pay for that increase. And the chief executive of Britain's National Association of Pension Funds speaks with admiration about a foreign system that "delivers efficiencies of scale that most companies would die for."
The foreign country that, in the view of well-informed Britons, does it right is the United States. The system that delivers efficiencies to die for is Social Security.
"Word Games" by Kenneth S. Baer
George Lakoff--the Democrats' hottest new thinker--misses the meaning behind the message.
By Kenneth S. Baer
On a cold Sunday a few weeks after the presidential election, I was sitting in one of those meetings that every politico hopes will turn out to be legendary. A young, promising candidate had gathered his consultants and closest advisers around his dining room table for a day-long conference to plot his run for higher office. It would be years until the next election day and longer still until the candidate's career would peak, but deep down in every political hack's heart lies the unstated hope that this will be the horse to go all the way—and that you will have been there when he got it all started.
In the middle of the discussion, the candidate's veteran media consultant pulled out a thin book—heavily underlined and annotated—and began reading passages from it as if it were the Bible. The book was George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, a volume that quickly has made its author one of the most sought-after speakers and advisers in Democratic circles and a cult figure among the liberal left. On the book's cover, Howard Dean touts Lakoff as “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement;” Robert Reich hails the book as “essential reading;” and Don Hazen—the founder of the left-wing Web site Alternet.org—writes in the book's introduction that Lakoff was “like a great reserve of pinot noir that few people drank. But not anymore. George Lakoff is on the road to fame and renown.”
So who is this new messiah? And how does he propose that a party of pinot noir drinkers win back the hearts and minds of those who would rather quaff Budweiser?
Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, uses linguistic analysis to diagnose Democrats' problems. He argues that all of us have, as part of our “cognitive unconscious,” frames that shape how we see the world. These frames are profoundly powerful, influencing “the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.” We discover our frames through our language; if we change our language, we change our frames. “Reframing,” Lakoff writes, “is social change.”
Of course, Lakoff cautions that it's not just the language itself that matters: “[I]deas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.” So, language reflects our mindset: If we change the language, then we can change how people think. This is where liberals and progressives have gotten in trouble, Lakoff argues. They make the mistake of sifting out the facts, while ignoring the reality that debating in a conservative frame only reinforces it. To change those red states to blue, then, progressives have to change minds by first reframing the debate. If, as Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “[T]he limits of my language are the limits of my world,” then the limits of my language apparently are also the limits of my ability to win an election.
I am not a cognitive linguist (the limits of my expertise in the field begin and end with the Wittgenstein quote above), and I cannot critique Lakoff's linguistic analysis. But I can say confidently that his political analysis is severely lacking. Don't Think of an Elephant is a small volume big on assumptions and short on the historical and political context that would shed light on why Americans respond to certain language in the ways that they do. In some places, Lakoff offers superb advice to candidates, but after reading this book—which, as a collection of many previously released articles, is disjointed and repetitive—it seems that Lakoff is primarily concerned with using linguistics to make the case for his liberal-left politics. That may bring comfort to his neighbors in Berkeley, but there's little evidence that it will win elections.
The heart of Lakoff's argument is that the roots of political debate in America stem from competing notions of the family: the “strict father” and the “nurturant parent.” Conservatives are strict fathers who want to “protect the family in the dangerous world, support the family in the difficult world, and teach [their] children right from wrong.” They have a clear model of what it means to be a good person—one must do what's right, pursue one's self-interest in order to prosper, and become self-reliant. This path is not just a way to prosperity, but a way toward morality. In this, Lakoff finds the conservative justification for cutting social programs (why reward those who can't help themselves) and to pursue a unilateral foreign policy (a strict father is a moral authority who tells others what to do).
Progressives, says Lakoff, are nurturant parents who believe in empathy and responsibility. Like good gender-neutral nurturant parents, they care for their children and thus want to protect them and make sure that they can live happy, fulfilled lives. Lakoff goes as far as to say that it's a “moral responsibility to teach your child to be a happy, fulfilled person who wants others to be happy and fulfilled.” From this moral charge there follows a whole roster of progressive values that Lakoff lays out—freedom, opportunity, prosperity, community-building, honesty, trust—as well as six distinct types of progressives, from identity-politics activists to environmentalists to “spiritual progressives” who include “pagan members of Wicca.”
While Democrats are preoccupied trying to appease their growing constituency of pagan worshippers, Lakoff argues that they are losing the key battle in American politics: trying to convince those people who are in the middle, torn between using their strict father and nurturant parent frames. In contrast, conservatives have built an intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and strategists that does the hard work of reframing the debate in their terms. They have used “strategic initiatives,” in which change in one small area is used to exercise leverage upon several other areas— for example, pushing tort reform to starve a key group of Democratic funders. In response, progressives have tried to argue the factual case against tort reform without realizing that people vote their values and their identities, not the facts.
I agree with this last insight wholeheartedly: Democrats lose when they think that they can win elections on data points without offering an inspiring vision of the future. Indeed, Lakoff has stumbled upon the central problem facing Democrats since Bill Clinton left office, but his explanation of how he got there is unconvincing, and his advice on how to go forward is misguided. By reducing American politics to language, Lakoff ignores the context that gives meaning to those words. Language only motivates people if the ideas and policies it's connected to resonate with a majority of Americans. It has to be consistent with the realities of American history and the American national character. Throughout his book, Lakoff ignores this context, using his theories to push for an agenda that resonates with him (and possibly his friends at the fringes of left-wing politics), but reflects neither what most Democrats—nor most Americans—believe.
Take the debate over “tax relief.” Lakoff notes that this is an archetypal example of how Republicans have framed an issue successfully: Taxes are a burden on a society, and the GOP will relieve you of this burden. It's a simple and powerful argument. Progressives, in response, have to offer a different frame that allows people to see taxes as the necessary investments to fund our society, and repeat this frame “until they take their rightful place in our synapses.”
This is hopeful but ignorant of the long history of American politics and political thought. America is a nation born out of a tax revolt, with an anti-statist strain that extends from Shays's Rebellion to Proposition 13. This is one important thing that distinguishes America from Canada or Western Europe, and why the United States never developed a vibrant socialist movement or certain social democratic institutions such as government-provided health care. In fact, there is a whole sub-genre in the political science literature about the roots of “American exceptionalism.” Lakoff may wish that Americans will embrace higher taxes—and at times they have for the right reasons, such as to fight a war—but to suggest that simply modifying the language will accomplish this ignores the ideas that animate our politics.
When it comes to foreign policy, Lakoff shows not only a misunderstanding of America, but also of the history of liberalism and the Democratic Party today. In a chapter written immediately after the attacks of September 11, Lakoff argues that President Bush quickly framed the attacks as a strong father would: It's about good versus evil, and we need to wipe out this evil even if people get hurt. While an earlier chapter admonishes progressives for ignoring the importance that nurturant parents place on protecting those that they are responsible for, in this discussion he argues that progressives should offer a frame on entirely different terms: “Justice is called for, not vengeance. Understanding and restraint is what is needed…we should not take innocent lives in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Massive bombing of Afghanistan—with the killing of innocents—will show that we are no better than they.”
If this is the type of advice Democrats are listening to, they will soon go the way of the Whigs and the Know-Nothings. To draw a moral equivalency between the invasion of Afghanistan and the attacks of September 11 between the United States and al Qaeda is disgusting. Beyond that, Lakoff's apparent view of the United States as a malevolent force in the world and the accompanying reluctance to use American power to ensure national security was as out of step with Americans' belief about themselves when it was propounded in the 1960s and 1970s as it is now.
Lakoff's progressive siblings in Berkeley—who, as Lakoff writes, were “proud” to have Barbara Lee as their congresswoman since she was the only member of Congress to vote against giving President Bush authorization to carry out the war on terrorism—represent neither the progressive tradition that shaped the Democratic Party of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, nor the beliefs of a younger generation of Democrats who came of age in the era of Bill Clinton and are unobstructed by the ghosts of Vietnam. Not only is equating progressivism with pacifism a misreading of American history, it's also a losing political strategy in states red, blue, and purple.
Then again, Lakoff—like most of the liberal left—rejects the modernization of the party and of progressivism that Clinton helped lead in the 1990s. That is why he ascribes Gray Davis's recall from the governorship of California to his “bad mistake of accepting the Democratic Leadership Council's metaphor of campaigning as marketing” and just parroting back to the electorate popular stances on the top three issues and hoping for support. This analysis of the DLC and the New Democratic movement is not just a cheap shot, it's also utterly wrong. The DLC and New Democrats (myself included) consistently have argued against this pandering paint-by-numbers approach to politics, and have offered the most compelling counter-frame to the conservative one in a generation. In fact, Clinton was the master of doing exactly of what Lakoff says Democrats need to be doing now; he reframed the debates surrounding welfare, affirmative action, budget politics, Social Security—just to name a few.
No matter how much Lakoff and the left want to reject and misrepresent what Clinton and the New Democrats accomplished, its power is evident in Don't Think of an Elephant. At the end of his book, Lakoff unwittingly embraces the New Democratic public philosophy, offering a “10-word breakdown” of what progressives believe that could have come from the lips of Al From: “Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility.” It's a shame that Lakoff is too preoccupied with justifying his own political biases to get the facts right, since his central argument—that a poll-driven, issues-based strategy is a non-starter—is valid and strong.
Therein lies the missed opportunity of this book. Throughout his essays, Lakoff offers up tidbits of useful advice to Democrats, from thinking strategically to warning that progressives need to explain to voters the values that inform their stances, not just the programs they promote. Democrats need to hear this. Since the end of the Clinton administration, the party has reverted back to a politics of materialism in which it promises an assortment of constituencies whatever it is they want in order to build a coalition. This may work in a congressional or even gubernatorial race, but it does not work for national offices—such as for senator and president—where larger, symbolic issues of what America stands for and what it should become are at stake. This strategy defeats itself since it ultimately undermines the overall Democratic “brand,” rendering the party label meaningless and the party's purpose obtuse. More than that, when a new issue arises—such as terrorism—it leaves the party without the intellectual framework to craft a compelling response.
Democrats looking for answers won't find them in the recycled New Left ideas printed, fittingly, on the chlorine-free recycled paper of Don't Think of an Elephant. Rather, Lakoff's book should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats to offer a vision that not only competes with the conservative one but is also positive, powerful, and appealing to Americans across the country—no matter if they are daddy's little girls or momma's boys.
Kenneth S. Baer, the author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (University Press of Kansas), is a former White House speechwriter and founder of Baer Communications.
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Very interesting "mythological" analysis of current right-wing thinking here. A sample:
"There is a simple reason why mystery cults emerge in times of imperial distension from Mazdak to Jesus to the Second Great Awakening. Out of the vertiginous gulf (between the powerlessness of the ordinary imperial citizen to effect their own destiny and the massive power of that state to crush them at a whim or by accident) crawl nightmares and monsters. We know that powerful forces are at work all around us, that the emperor could roll over in his sleep and crush ten thousand lives and go right on snoring, that everything we know could be swept away tomorrow and we would be left with some remnant of friends and family, stumbling across ruin in a daze, calling the names of those who will never answer.
But even though we know that powerful forces are at work all around us, we are so utterly remote from the exercise of that power that we must imagine its workings, preferably in a way that allows us to humor ourselves and concoct sinister roles for those whom we hate. Since we never see the emperor as his physicians and valet do, we only see the dread results of his fits and dreams. And so we make myths that reduce vast, impersonal forces to common human desires, and raise mere slobs to the stature of gods. They meet, so we imagine, over our heads and clash in midair, and we are satisfied that we have illustrated our tiny place in the universe.
So, here we are, inventing new gods and rewriting the apocalypse. It's not like there's anything else to do. We take what little we know about our world and bang it into a shape we can believe in. Before long, we have a new history, an altered model of the universe, a transformed sense of what makes for "self." This is what is True, now. For those who never knew our Republic, this empire's present fantasy of itself is what passes for past, present, and G-d."
Read more at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/1/11/173619/170