I’m in the process of reading George Lakoff’s latest, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea. It’s great, and obviously something I’ve been thinking about a lot too. I’m only about a third of the way through, but so far Lakoff is taking a much different approach to understanding the conservative notion of freedom than I have. He’s either being more charitable or more nuanced, or he’s just flat out wrong.
My take on conservative freedom is that it all pretty much boils down to property rights, and Russell Kirk had it about right when he put it seventh out of ten and after a bunch of stuff about defending the moral order. This is what is behind the endless bellyaching about taxes we get from the conservative punditry: It’s becauase they’re just not really into any kind of freedom beyond that, whether you describe it as substantial freedom or FDR’s four freedoms or cognitive liberty or whatever. And the reason the current occupant of the White House talks about it so much is pure Orwell: it’s a pretty word and it sounds nice in speeches and hopefully no one will notice what a shallow mockery they’re making of the concept in their actual policies…
Maybe I haven’t really gotten inside his (or anyone’s) understanding of conservative freedom yet, but every time I make an attempt to, I feel like my perhaps uncharitable view of their understanding of freedom gets massively reinforced. Take this passage from this morning’s Flash Report, another whiny tirade about Mr Angelides and taxes:
In the public policy arena, the enemy of liberty and freedom is based on how much of your paycheck do YOU get to keep to take care of your needs and those of your family, versus how much is sent to the government in taxes.
It’s tempting to think of this as just being another day and another variant of the “It’s your money, blah blah blah” treatment, but think about it. Think about how…
dopey [This was a rotten thing to say, I apologize below. -da] weak of an understanding of freedom this is, how thin it is and the immensity of what it leaves out. Freedom to benefit from the investment your parents made in our society? Not in there. Freedom for every kid to go to school and get a chance to develop their mind? Not in there. Freedom to have access to some kind of health care if you get sick? Not in there. FDR’s four: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Not in there. Even simple things – freedom to get where you’re going and not be stuck in traffic all the time? Not in there.
Freedom is about a whole lot more than dickering over what percentage of your paycheck you get to keep. The enemy of freedom and liberty in the public policy arena is anyone who tries to put freedom in a tiny box with “property rights” scribbled in sharpie on the top. Senator McClintock, you hearing this? Maybe Mr Fleischman should be worried about people waking up to the realization that the conservative philosophy of governance either rests on a really warped view of freedom, or they’re doing a terrible job explaining what it’s really about. Constant griping about taxes isn’t going to help move our state, or our civilization, forward even an inch.
Mr Fleischman manages to get a bunch of other stuff wrong at the same time. He’s right about the middle class squeeze being a big deal, but his diagnosis is flat out wrong. The problem ain’t taxes. Given the amount of conservative hot air and bloviating around this, this fact is going to come as something of a shock: the size of both the federal and California state governments didn’t really change much over the entire 20th century, compared to the only factor that matters, the overall size of the economy. All that “expanding government” schtick is complete horsepucky.
That’s a pretty strong statement, but about a year ago I crunched some of the numbers, and as shocking as this is to anyone who has lived through the rhetoric of both Reagan and the Bushes, it holds up. The first graph here is of personal income and the size of the California state government over time. It’s in unadjusted dollars, but since we’re looking at the relative sizes of things that’s fine. Just to be clear: that red line along the top is the ever climbing personal income in California. The blue, almost flat line is how much we’re spending on state government.
The second graph makes this even more clear. It’s not perfectly flat, true: it’s gone up and gone down, and it ticked up a little during the Davis years. Maybe some enterprising reader can take this graph and overlay the various governor’s times in office over it. But one thing is crystal clear: this size of the government has most certainly not “exploded.” 5.5% to 6.5%, to look at the expenditures vs. Gross State Product line, is one percent. That is not an explosion. That’s one percent more, total and combined, that we’re spending on health care, on education, on infrastructure and on taking care of those who market fundamentalism leaves behind.
Which isn’t to say that the state has been well managed over this whole period. In fact, recently we seem to have gone a bit off the rails, and the third graph illustrates this. Starting around 2000, when the tech boom pulled its Wile E. Coyote-style “you can only keep running so far after you’ve run off the edge of the cliff” move, the revenue and expenditure lines split and produced the deficit that Governor Schwarzenegger has so far done squat to fix, despite having every opportunity to do so. The conservatives are right in their Keynesian arguments about deficits; a little debt to get things going again after a slump isn’t a bad thing. But the size and shape of their tax cuts, the structural deficits and ever-climbing mountains of debt they’re producing are all wrong. To both true conservatives and to Dean-style pragmatic progressives, this is a big deal.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering if all the expansion the conservatives are constantly carping about happened at the federal government level instead, the answer to that is also a resounding no. The final graph shows federal revenue and expenditures as a function of GDP. Again, the curve is nearly flat (even more so than California’s, as it turns out). Amazing.
So back to the middle class squeeze. If it’s not taxes causing it, what is? It’s stagnating wages and inflationary fundamentals, like housing, health care and education costs. There are also certain costs involved with capitalism run amok; although there’s been a significant counter-trend away from this, for the most part people are keeping up with the Joneses like never before. This isn’t suprising if you take the billions upon billions of dollars spent every year on advertising. Business is doing great, if you look at it from the narrowest of perspectives possibe. Productivity is up, but the results just aren’t being shared. Fix that, and the middle class squeeze will evaporate.
Maybe this is a more complicated message than “blame the government,” but this is reality. The flimsy conservative understanding of reality that both Governor Schwarzenegger and Jon Fleischman share is poorly suited to operating in it, let alone piloting the world’s fifth largest economy through it. We’ve never needed change like we need it now.