The American Dream and other attacks on deliberative democracy

The trope of the American Dream, or at least the phrase itself, has been making a comeback within the organizations that represent the American left. Most notably, Van Jones has dubbed his new project The American Dream Movement, and has established as its goal to “rebuild the dream.” What is the dream that we are rebuilding? Van Jones explains:

It’s the dream of a country where, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can live with dignity, provide for your family, and give your kids a better life. A country where we strive for greatness–and take care of each other when times get hard.

The American Dream Movement — assuming we can call a letterhead coalition built around a cult of personality a movement — is certainly not the only group that has summoned the American Dream trope in its messaging. Earlier this year, put out two calls to action in response to the Wisconsin labor battles, one titled “Defend the American Dream” and the other titled “Rally to Save the American Dream.” Even less prominent groups are getting in on the game: the Caring Across Generations campaign recently put out an emergency call to action to “Protect the American Dream” in response to the now-resolved debt-ceiling theatre.

The first thing that strikes me about this messaging is that it is amusingly inconsistent. What are we supposed to be doing with the American Dream exactly? On some sides it appears that we are protecting, saving, and defending it — this implying that it presently exists, but is under attack. On other sides, specifically Jones’ organization, it appears that the American Dream has already been destroyed, and that we are trying to revive it. The communications professionals shaping this messaging need to come together to figure out which line they want to use.

On a more substantive note, using this trope in a way that implies it actually describes the reality of any time in the past or present is marginalizing and simply historically false. The American Dream has always been a myth for all but a select few in the population. Those who call upon the trope typically have in mind the post-WWII era as the period in which the Dream reigned. For groups that are supposed to be leftist in orientation, you would think that romanticizing the 1950s would be something obviously problematic. Suggesting that the time period was one where hard work paid coincidentally ignores the plight of women, people of color, and the poor white underclass, the very constituencies that these organizations attempt to represent.

Of course, dissecting the follies involved in relying on the rhetoric of The American Dream is a fruitless enterprise. It assumes wrongly that the public relations messaging, soundbites, and talking points put out by organizations actually attempt to make substantive points. We have reached a point — or maybe it has always been the case — where all of the communications coming from any prominent group, politician, or company are smothered in sugary manipulation that specifically intends to mislead.

Sadly, we have an entire profession — the public relations profession — whose sole purpose is to pollute public dialogue with slogans and phrases that score well with focus groups while simultaneously being completely devoid of content. Public figures are drilled to stick to limited talking points, and never genuinely engage with ideas or others. You can see this phenomenon in play in any speech, press release, or other communication coming from almost any organization or politician. You can also see it in the presidential debates, a quadrennial spectacle so awful that it can only properly be described as a mind-numbing show of talking point call and response.

What is most troubling about these practices is how functionally anti-democratic they are. Contemporary political philosophers have converged upon a definition of democracy as being “government by discussion.” This understanding of democracy — sometimes referred to as deliberative or discursive democracy — places public deliberation and reasoning at the center of an actually democratic state. The achievement of this state requires certain discourse norms or ethics, a point most prominently brought out by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

One does not need to delve too deeply into the idea of discourse ethics to realize that the present state of dialogue in American politics is antithetical to what would be required for a government by discussion — that is, a democracy. What kind of discussion is it when the most prominent and loudest voices are rattling off slogans and platitudes with the specific intent to avoid substantive ideas and positions? It is not a discussion at all. These “discussions” do not mimic discourse or reasoning; instead, they mimic corporate branding and advertisement.

If we hope to pursue an actual deliberative democracy — one that involves more than filling out ballots — this whole approach to communication needs to be done away with. When an organization uses messaging and communication that is only barely related to its own internal discussions and ideas, that is misleading and anti-democratic. It makes public reasoning and discourse impossible. All sides are guilty of this kind of discourse pollution, but the resurgence of the American Dream trope on the left is unfortunately the most recent instance of it.

Boehner and Reid agree that poor students should pay more

The finale of the debt-ceiling theatre is nearing, and it is shaping up to be an exciting one. With this self-imposed disaster looming, two plans have moved ahead as front-runners in the negotiations. The two plans — proposed by Harry Reid and John Boehner — cut a basically identical amount of spending, with the exception that Reid’s plan includes caps on spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without those caps, the Reid and Boehner plans reduce the deficit over the next decade by $927 billion and $917 billion respectively. Reid’s war-spending caps net his plan an additional $1.277 trillion in deficit reductions that Boehner’s does not, but the significance of this is disputed as the wars are already winding down.

Despite their disagreements in some areas, both Reid and Boehner have come to agree that poor students need to pay more. Senator Reid’s plan calls for the elimination of the interest subsidy for loans taken out by low-income graduate and professional students. Representative Boehner’s plan calls for the exact same thing. They likely got the idea from none other than President Obama who proposed eliminating the subsidy earlier this year. With Boehner, Reid, and Obama on board, increasing the burden on poor students is shaping up to be quite a bipartisan success.

As someone who presently receives the subsidy, I have a good idea what the elimination of it will mean for poor students. Under current law, graduate and professional students who are sufficiently needy are able to access up to $8,500 per year in subsidized Stafford Loans. What makes the loans subsidized is that the federal government pays for the interest that accrues on the loan while the student is in school. After graduation and a six-month grace period, the student is then responsible for paying off the principle and any interest that accrues from that point.

For a student who takes out the full $8,500 for three years — as poor law students likely do — the elimination of this subsidy will cost them slightly more than $3600 during the time that they attend the school. Upon graduation, their higher debt total will lengthen the amount of time it takes for them to pay off their loans. That delay will then cost them more as interest will continue to accrue. Just how much more it will cost them depends on how quickly their income after graduation allows them to pay off their loans. While it will vary by case, for many students, it is likely thousands more will have to be paid in additional interest on top of the extra $3600+ that the subsidy used to cover.

While there are cuts that would be worse than this — like cuts to Medicaid or SNAP — this is still contrary to any reasonable picture of distributive justice. With the elimination of this subsidy, poor students are being told that they must pay money that they do not have in order to decrease a deficit which they did not cause. What caused this deficit that we are now having to close? In short, it was three things: the Bush-Obama tax cuts, the two wars, and the Great Recession. The tax cuts primarily benefited the wealthiest individuals in this country; the wars — one of which was perpetrated through outright lies — benefited few except war contractors; and, the Great Recession created enormous pain for almost everyone except the very bankers who caused it.

No one could seriously maintain that the logical remedy for a problem generated by those causes is to take money from poor people. At most, one might try to argue for some sort of shared sacrifice. We might say that we should let bygones be bygones, and stop pointing fingers at the classes and groups of people who have put us in the situation we are in. On this kind of line, we would remark that this is a problem for the entire country, and we all need to sacrifice in order to solve it. But, we are not even doing that.

The leaders on both sides have decided that we will fix our problems exclusively on the backs of poor people, old people, and sick people. The extremely rich financiers — who both caused our present predicament and have plenty of money to contribute to fixing it — are going to be spared completely. Asking them to pay a single dollar to improve our fiscal situation has been taken completely off the table.

Race to the bottom leads to corporatism

Right-wing advocates of limited government often argue that locating political power in state governments is preferable to locating it in the federal government. The reasoning they give for why this is the case is a bit complicated. On its face, it seems like it is irrelevant where government power is located. After all, a state government can be just as involved in regulation and social programs as the federal government is. Advocates of this view do not deny that, but they typically claim that locating power in state governments will force states to compete with one another which will lead them to reduce regulations and taxes in order to attract businesses.

That is, they believe that the natural conclusion of inter-government competition for capital investment is a race to the bottom which will force governments to increasingly dismantle labor laws, environmental laws, taxes, and other regulations. When the federal government sets nationwide standards, owners of capital have no way to escape them except of course to move out of the country, something they increasingly do. However, if a state sets a particular standard, owners of capital can just shift that capital to another state and easily avoid it. Thus, this strategy of relocating power in the states will usher in the kind of limited government those on the right-wing would like to see.

That is the theory at least. In reality, the mechanism used to force the creation of limited state governments — the profit-motivated decisions of investors — will actually create large state governments that provide generous handouts to attract businesses. Advocates of this strategy typically think of it in terms of the pairwise comparisons of investors. An investor choosing between two states would choose the one that had less environmental regulations, assuming everything else about the states was identical. Along the same lines, an investor deciding between two states would pick the state that had lower taxes, no workplace safety rules, and no unions. The state that was imposing these profit-reducing measures would then be starved of capital investment, and would thus be forced to dismantle them to stay competitive.

This analysis of what would happen makes good sense, but it does not go far enough. There is nothing that would constrain states that are competing with one another to only use decreased state intervention to attract investors. In fact, at some point all of the regulations would have to be repealed which would leave the states no choice but to compete in some other way. That other way would of course be through subsidies, corporate welfare, and other sorts of monetary bribes. If an investor is choosing between a state which will cut them a check from the public coffers and one which wont, clearly the state giving them money would be preferred. The same competition effects would kick in, and states would be off to the races to see who could hand out the most money to attract capital.

This kind of corruption of the state by owners of capital is quite natural and pops up in almost any place where a free market is supposed to exist. Noam Chomsky’s talk on this phenomenon which he refers to as the “really existing free market theory” is illuminating:

And the principle of really existing free market theory is: free markets are fine for you, but not for me. That’s, again, near a universal. So you — whoever you may be — you have to learn responsibility, and be subjected to market discipline, it’s good for your character, it’s tough love, and so on, and so forth. But me, I need the nanny State, to protect me from market discipline, so that I’ll be able to rant and rave about the marvels of the free market, while I’m getting properly subsidized and defended by everyone else, through the nanny State.

The brute fact of the matter is that a capitalist who has to choose between a perfectly laissez-faire state and a corporate welfare state will always choose the latter. Forcing states to compete to attract capital will consequently always lead to the construction of corporatist states, not limited-government paradises. To suggest otherwise is to pretend that owners of capital will not invest that capital where it will yield the best return, i.e. that capitalists will not act as capitalists.