I try to read the MoveOn emails I receive several times a week. Yes, I try. But they are very trying.

Just this morning I got an email from “Bernie Sanders” . . . which began “Hi Timothy — I just wanted to make sure you saw my message from the other day.”

Must be important.

So what does “Bernie Sanders” say?

Well, he pushes what he (or his copywriter) call “the progressive agenda,” which is dead set against the “corporate giveaway” in the new tax reform bill. Here is how he begins:

Throughout my political career, I have asked us all to imagine what our nation’s future could be: a country with a minimum wage that is a living wage; with students graduating college without crushing debt that stifles their ability to pursue their dreams; where health care is recognized as a right for every man, woman, and child; and where we lead other nations in the fight against climate change.

I have asked us to believe that we could level the playing field and create a vibrant democracy where the billionaire class would no longer be able to buy and sell our candidates and elections.

I will always believe in that vision of America — even as I watch Republicans try to pass a tax scam that is literally the opposite agenda of what you and I have championed over the years.

A tax scam. I wonder: does it increase taxes on the poor and the proverbial “middle class”? I doubt it, but I honestly do not know. The only “fact” about the tax bill given is that it decreases taxes on the wealthy.

I assume by that he means decreases tax rates on the wealthy. There is a difference between rate and revenue. The difference should affect the way we talk about taxes. Somehow, it almost never does.

Bernie, if you could help me on this, please explain. Comments are open below.

Lacking many specifics from this pitch letter (and, after all, that is what most MoveOn emails are, pleas for funds — the only other regular pitch being calls for action, usually to complain to my congressperson), I wander back up to the top. Bernie Sanders imagines an America with “a minimum wage that is a living wage”; with college students not starting their remunerative careers buried in debt; “health care” treated “as a right” for all; and the country leading the world “in the fight against climate change.” Each point is worth thinking about. But I am going to avoid the “climate change” issue entirely, focusing, instead, on the climate-of-opinion change regarding matters nearer at hand.*

The Ass Ceiling

Minimum wage laws were one of the two big issues regarding economic policy that turned me away, forever, from Bernie’s brand of politics. The first time I heard someone assert that minimum wage laws hurt some low-skilled workers while helping competing workers with higher perceived skills, I got really interested in economics. As a science. I wanted to see how this could be the case, if it could at all.

I learned two things right away: one must move beyond slogans and look at what laws are at base, and then what their effects are beyond the policy’s immediate targets.

At base, minimum wage laws proscribe hiring people at a rate lower than set by the “minimum.” A minimum wage regulation does not require businesses to hire anybody at that rate. Such regulations prohibit businesses from hiring anybody below that rate. So, by their very nature, minimum wage laws are employment-limiting laws.

That puts the burden of proof on the proponent of the “minimum wage” to explain how it could increase the ranks of the employed, or, at the very least, not decrease those ranks. If employment decreases — either immediately or in the future — then minimum wage laws are not boons to the poor, lifting poor workers out of poverty. Instead, they would constitute mere redistribution-of-wealth schemes: in effect taking from some poor and giving to others, making them less poor.

The import of this idea has yet to hit at least half of the population.

The working out of the wider and long-term effects of wage-rate floors (as economists tend to characterize the regulation) gets complicated. It comes down to productivity — the marginal product, actually — and interesting scientific study can work out the complexities. There are debates to be had.† But what is interesting about political discussion, particularly from Bernie Sanders and his cadres, is that such discussion is never forthcoming. The usual defenses of minimum wage regulations that I hear point to the bizarre Card and Krueger studies, and not as economic explanations, but as excuses, as authority to dismiss economic reasoning entirely — with no more intellectual integrity than nyah-nyah taunting. “My study is better than your study”!

The popular use of these contrarian studies (and yes, most studies of minimum wage law effects disconfirm the stated utility of the regulations) is not to advance knowledge, much less explore how any particular study is constructed, but because it gives an excuse to hold to a policy endorsed for non-scientific reasons.

imageI know this because I felt their pull. The love of “minimum wage” regulations is part of a belief in the efficacy not merely of government but of activists who propound simple nostrums. It is a very religious commitment, and when I looked into the issue, nearly four decades ago, and studied my own psychology as well as economic theory, I concluded that my motives in promoting the wage floor were not pristine.

As always in such issues, it comes back to the Seen and Not Seen. What we “see” is a minimum wage law, and people employed above the prohibited low rates. We do not — and cannot — see the people that would have been employed had such regulations not existed. The counter-factual world is closed to us. And yet the reality of our experience is entirely encompassed precisely by such counter-factuals, since, when we choose either a job or a policy (or a career or a spouse or a philosophy) we are forecasting two or more possible worlds of effects that would result from a choice one way or the other, and those forecasts are not illusions, but guesses as to possible realities that, after the choice is made and the action (or policy) instantiated, only one of which becomes factual, actual.

By sticking to the Seen effects of minimum wage regulations, the enforced floor’s proponents allow themselves a smug sense of “sticking to the facts” while denying a basic part of reality. Meanwhile, they become acolytes to a particular religious view of life, wherein the State is savior and activism is ritual and prayer.

And, all the while they go about promoting one of their favored nostrums, they ignore the reality: wage floors are worse than the proverbial “glass ceilings” of feminist lore. The floor is raised, hiking the productivity requirements of workers, placing those unable to perform at the set level below the floor, looking up at the . . . feet and asses of those who remain employed. The People Under the Floor have been condemned by the regulation, with no more hope for them other than subsidy.

Oh, sure, they could get more skills, and that is indeed one thing progressives have always insisted upon: that people who want to work go to progressive-run schools where productivity is allegedly taught (it isn’t, for the most part) and the bills are paid from taxpayers. Indeed, unable to work because prohibited from doing so, the likelihood of skill acquisition is diminished for the low-skilled, since actual work is the single most important source for acquiring skills. And, indeed, most of those trapped under the floor are there in no small part because our society’s prescribed basic training ground, the public school, has proved to be ineffective (for a variety of reasons). No wonder, then, that The People Under the Floor turn to black markets and government handouts. That is pretty much all that is left them.

That is what Bernie Sanders and his kind have left them.

I shudder when I think about the People Under the Floor. And I try (often not successfully) not to be angered at the progressives most intent on policies that keep them there.

The takeaway that is so rarely taken, is this: the wage floor is an ass ceiling for the forcibly unemployed.

But Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

The interesting thing about progressivism is its relentless moralism. The subject line of Bernie’s email is “Stop this immoral disaster.” Calling something “immoral” often excuses one from thinking about it in any practical way. Bernie was talking about the tax issue, but his lack of any specifics is just indicative of this sort of mindset.

When I call something “immoral” or “evil,” that means that I have stopped careful consideration of it, too. Them’s fighting words, words of action.

One just hopes that there is some thought upon which that judgment of immorality can be based.

In his earnest (if under-thought) wishes for a debt-free beginning to careers (Bernie himself was a slacker, and then entered Congress in a great binge of living off the system) and for automatic, care-free medical assistance for all, Bernie seems driven by a utopian vision, an Edenic myth, backed only by

  1. activism and
  2. subsidy from the rich

IMG_4679Indeed, this email sums up his whole approach. It is an appeal to activists to support more activism that would (the scheme runs) lead to government action that would take from the rich and give to the not-rich. So no wonder, in all this, it is important to mention the awful spectacle of billionaires “buying and selling” — no talk of renting, interestingly enough — “our candidates and elections.” The big money game in politics is there, of course, because big money is what it is all about. Bernie S. and his fellow B.S.ers demand that “the rich” subsidize them more. Which is about money. Lots of it. The mere presence of the B.S. agenda ensures that those whom B.S.ers wish to plunder will lobby government to keep a bit more of what they have.

This is simply the nature of politics. When it is not about offense, it is about defense. And the more hits in offense a group takes, the more the group will spend in defense.

And by complaining about the rich defending themselves, the B.S.ers are trying to stack the game in their favor. Not only do they think it would be “nice” if other people paid for their college educations and their health care, they think it would be especially nice if those people who pay do not have a say in the “deal.”

How convenient.

Yet they are the ones always talking about “greed”!

This whole approach that they push seems a huge grab from a few to give to the many.

Quite a scheme they got, there.

None of This Is New

Nothing I have written here should strike anyone as in any way novel — except perhaps for a few quips and phrasings. After all, this is a very old debate. As soon as “socialism” became a word on the lips of reformers and revolutionaries, these debates became ubiquitous.

When I was young, the people who pushed the B.S. line were often called “liberals,” but with the rise of Reaganite conservatism, the l-word because a term of opprobrium. The word “progressive” became more popular. When I was younger, I read The Progressive magazine. I have been following this sort of thing all my adult life. But not close enough, apparently, for that magazine still exists. I have not seen it in years.

IMG_4680Indeed, I dropped the rag about the time I helped found Liberty magazine, which was published from Port Townsend until the death of its publisher in 2005. The third issue of Liberty appeared about 30 years ago exactly; the first had hit the mails in July (I think it was) of 1987. Liberty was a libertarian zine, and I had considered myself some sort of a libertarian for less than a decade at the time of its founding. But I had read a great deal of literature in both the individualist and collectivist movements. I had made an informed choice.

Perhaps I was destined to become a libertarian, for my individualism was built into the warp and woof of my psyche. Thinking in terms of groups seemed nuts to me. Indeed, I had interpreted my anti-racism and anti-sexism so big in the decades of my youth as anti-groupthink ethical philosophies. The error of sexism was to judge a person primarily in sex role terms, “by his or her sex” not his or her personhood. What an affront to civility, it seemed to me. And racism? Even less justifiable, for while the differences between men and women, boys and girls, were quite obvious and pronounced on the biological level, and even in psychological terms, the differences among the races were not that large, and from one person to another in any racial category could easily stretch the whole of human diversity.

And yet now the B.S. folks talk relentlessly of groups, of group identity, of one’s personal identity in terms of groups, and of victim groups and groups to be victimized (I mean, “oppressor” groups to be brought down and made “to pay”). Collectivism is alive and well. I have no sympathy for it any more. The whole “thinking in group terms” groupthink strikes me as pure madness.

And why “madness”? Why not use a nicer term? Well, madness is a word we usually use to describe the passionate people who are in some important way unhinged from reality.

The reality I see is that, right now, there are two federal governments: the constitutional government funded by income taxes, corporate taxes, other taxes, tariffs and “fees”; and the extra-constitutional government (consisting of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, mainly) funded by FICA and SECA and similar taxes. Interestingly, the unconstitutional government (which I designate as unconstitutional simply because, uh, none of its functions are listed in the Constitution) is basically run on a rough parity, mimic-insurance-contracts “public utility” basis, and what one gets out of the system does indeed depend on what one puts into it. The constitutional part is paid for mostly by the wealthy.

The nature of this tax situation is indeed quite amazing. The B.S.ers often yammer about “making the rich pay their fair share,” but the constitutional government is paid for almost entirely by the rich. This video explains this pretty well:

So when Bernie writes me to warn that current moves by the Republicans are designed to benefit the rich at the expense of “working families,” I am a bit skeptical:

And I’m going on the road again because we have to defeat this bill, too — a tax bill that will slash taxes for the rich, raise taxes on working families, and lay the groundwork for a massive attack on the most vulnerable people in our country.

This bill is an immoral disaster. If it passes, 13 million fewer Americans will be insured, and health care premiums will surge for tens of millions more. Further, the Republican budget cuts Medicaid by $1 trillion over 10 years and Medicare by over $400 billion. In order to give huge tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations, the Republican budget also makes enormous cuts to education, nutrition, affordable housing, and transportation — and will crush college students and college graduates struggling with debt.

In short: This budget will do incalculable harm to tens of millions of working families, women, kids, the sick, the elderly, and the poor. We have to fight this budget and stop it. That’s why I’m hitting the road with MoveOn, and why I’m asking you to support the work that we’re doing.

Then he asks for $3.

Thanks, but no thanks. I will spend $3 on a Coke. Or two. Or three.

Bernie makes no mention of how “rickety” is the current unconstitutional government sector, the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid division. That is where most of his complaints about cuts are. But if it be unstable, financially unsound, we (if there is a “we” at all here . . . I know I have no power of choice in the matter) have basically two things to do: cut services and/or raise revenues. A normal person would probably suggest doing both, though one could see problems associated with doing either. The consequences of doing nothing? Almost unthinkable, for most people.

The fact that Bernie makes no mention of the problem, just focuses, instead, on the problem he sees with one solution, strikes me as irresponsible. If you want to know why there is such a strong divide, these day, look not merely the rhetoric on both sides, but on what they do not say. Bernie is mum about the secular disorder of the federal government, in which he serves as a prominent leader.

And his solution — make the rich pay more, not less — is even less responsible. He wishes to bail out the unconstitutional system that he himself helped strain (by voting for more benefits in the past) from the constitutional half of government, which already is paid for mainly by the very people he wants to soak further in his bailout.

I just shake my head.

I realize, this rambling blog entry is of little value. I am not really writing to convince anyone of any particular thing. Do I have any hope of convincing the progressives? No. They live in their reality, and its irreality they hope to impose on the rest of us. Meanwhile, we watch the Republicans speak only in half truths, and attempt only half-responsible reforms. I am just venting between jobs. (I have a video project to get to.)

I have never been less hopeful about the political future of the United States than I am right now. And I ascribe most of this to the unwillingness of partisans to deal with reality. Two sides and the middle are caught in a game where not seeing the whole is the most obvious feature.

It looks like the worst sort of game: not win-win; not win-lose; but lose-lose.



* The willingness of people to become convinced of governments’ ability to manage the planetary climate while our federal government cannot even balance a budget is so astounding to me that I am, right now, at a loss for words. On that goofy subject.

† One of my readers made an astounding caveat to an earlier expression of mine about the marginal productivity theory of wages, which depended upon what seemed to me like a bizarre misreading of equilibrium theory, and a complete elision of knowledge problems —  but I confess, many of these are beyond my ken.)