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Obama's problem: economic stagnation

posted 22 Jun 2012, 18:31 by Meriposa World   [ updated 22 Jun 2012, 18:31 ]

In his 2006 book, "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth", Benjamin Friedman, an economics professor at Harvard, argued that steady economic growth “fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy”. But the flip-side is that when a nation's economy stagnates, its citizens aren't quite so nice. In a new interview in International Economy, Mr Friedman dwells on the dark side of his thesis:

The argument was and is that when the bulk of the population loses its sense of forward progress in its material living conditions and loses too the sense of confidence or optimism that that forward progress will be restored any time soon, countries all too often not only make no forward progress but enter periods of rigidity and retrenchment, and all sorts of unfortunate things happen.

In his book, Mr Friedman argues that we track our progress through two kinds of social comparison. We compare how well we are doing economically compared to our parents at the same age, and compared to ourselves some years ago. Are we doing well relative to the past? We also compare ourselves with our neighbours and fellow citizens. Are we doing well according to those we consider our peers? Mr Friedman suggests that these two forms of comparison are partial substitutes. As long as we take ourselves to be doing well relative to our parents and our younger selves, we're less inclined to check how we are doing relative to the Joneses, and will not feel threatened by the upward mobility of those below us. But if we feel that we’re stalled relative to where we were in our past, we become protective of our relative position in the broader distribution of wealth, and may become disposed to consolidate our advantages and cut off opportunities for others.

Mr Friedman, in his interview, cites some evidence that America's long stretch of stagnation has made us mean:

In almost every one of the elements I mentioned—opportunity, fairness, tolerance, and democratic institutions—we have seen some retrograde movement, and it seems to be accelerating.As has often been the case in the American experience, the leading edge of this movement can be noticed first in changing attitudes toward immigrants. All you have to do is read the newspaper to discover that attitudes toward immigrants are perhaps our most contentious domestic non-economic issue these days. Look at the debate today not just at the federal level but at the state level, in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, and other states.

That anti-immigration zeal has grown virulent even as net migration from Mexico has declined to zero surely counts as a point in favour of Mr Friedman's thesis. And it makes good, sad psychological sense. We can afford to be expansively welcoming just as long as we feel our share is growing and secure. But come crunch time, we circle the wagons against the depredations of the outsider, of "the other".

Reading this interview of Mr Friedman, I wondered if this dynamic might partly account for eroding support for Barack Obama among white voters. Nate Cohn of the New Republic surveys the polls and reports:

Since February, 25 state and national polls from Quinnipiac and Pew Research disaggregated Obama’s standing against Romney by educational attainment. ... [T]he degree of consistency across the six states and the six national polls is striking: Of the 25 polls, 22 show a larger drop-off among non-college educated white voters.On average, Obama has lost nearly 6 percentage points among white voters without a college degree. Given that Obama had already lost millions of traditionally Democratic white working class voters in 2008, this degree of further deterioration is striking. In the three national polls conducted since April, Obama held just 34 percent of white voters without a college degree, compared to 40 percent in 2008. Thirty-four percent places Obama in the company of Walter Mondale, George McGovern, and the 2010 House Democrats. These are landslide numbers.

Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal, no doubt less depressed by this development, chips in:

The latest Peter Hart/Bill McInturf poll now has Mr. Obama capturing just 39 percent of the white vote (with 52 percent going to Romney). That's not enough to win and is giving Democratic strategists nightmares. Mr. Hart, a Democrat, has said that because of the president's slippage with white voters, "Obama's chances for re-election . . . are no better than 50-50."Even if Mr. Obama wins by big margins with all other ethnic groups, it is hard to see him winning again if he gets only four of 10 white votes. His biggest problem now appears to be with white middle-class voters who feel that things are getting worse economically.

I doubt it's just that white voters, with or without college degrees, feel things are getting worse economically. Mr Obama's skin color has always worked to his disadvantage. As Mr Cohn reminds us, in 2008 Hillary Clinton walloped Mr Obama among less-educated white Democratic primary voters. As middle- and working-class stagnation has dragged on, the idea that Mr Obama is not "one of us", and has prioritised the interests of other segments of the electorate, seems to have become more attractive, abundant evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The moronic controversy over Mr Obama's birth certificate is, among other things, both a cause and an effect of white voters seeing Mr Obama as an alien pretender with questionable allegiances.

Mr Friedman argues, correctly in my opinion, that the tea-party movement has little authentic interest in shrinking the scope of government in a principled way. "Rather", Mr Friedman maintains, their point is about distinguishing between government programs and payments that go to people who are deemed worthy and government programs and payments that go to people who, in their judgment, are unworthy. But that takes us not to the role of government generically but to questions of generosity and opportunity.

And who's worthy? We are. The real Americans are. So, whose benefits get cut when it comes down to it? Theirs. "Cutbacks at both the state and the federal level have focused heavily on programs that help people who are born, through no fault of their own, in the less privileged socioeconomic groups in the society", Mr Friedman observes. John Ellis of RealClearPolitics argues that "'Framed choice' is Team Obama’s only hope of holding enough white voters to avoid dismissal."

The “framed choice” strategy is basically this: Everyone knows that pensions (Social Security) and health care (Medicare, Medicaid, child health programmes) are going to bankrupt the nation unless they are “right-sized” to revenue and existing debt. Whoever is elected president in 2012 will have to “right-size” these programmes over the course of the next four years. The framed choice for the white voters who will decide this election is this: Who do you think will better protect the interests of working-class and middle-class families when the inevitable cuts are packaged? Who do you want negotiating for you when it comes down to who gets hurt and who doesn’t? Do you really want Mitt Romney and a bunch of right-wing congressmen making these decisions?

Andrew Sullivan agrees that the framed-choice (and not the negative, scorched-earth) strategy is Mr Obama's best bet, and that it may be. But how good a bet is it, really? We all know that incumbents don't often survive poor economic conditions, and that Mr Obama, who inherited a financial crisis and a deep recession, was dealt a crap hand. But if recession raises the stakes of zero-sum distributive politics, and if that, in turn, heightens the extent to which distributive politics is simply identity politics, Mr Obama's crap hand may be worse than we thought. If, as Mr Friedman argues, economic stagnation brings out the worst in us, that suggests a bad economy will penalise a black incumbent more than it will penalise a white incumbent.

Who do you want negotiating for you when it comes down to who gets hurt and who doesn't? The whitest guy in the history of all-American white guys or the black guy with the funny name and the Kenyan socialist dad and the disputed birth certificate from Hawaii? I badly wish I could honestly say that this won't be the decisive "framed choice", but I can't. I fear we've lost more than GDP since 2008.

By W.W., The Economist, June 13, 2012