Ask me bonus post: Seth asks if it's worth it being a liberal in a Federal system

>> Monday, October 25, 2010

The other day, Seth posted:

Dear Eric,

Since you say you don't have anything blogworthy at the moment, I thought maybe you'd be willing to extend last week's "Ask Me" feature and help me answer a question that's been bugging me this week.

My question, roughly, is: Is it worth it being liberal in a federal system?

Here's the thing: I live in California. Here in CA we pay very high state and local taxes, yet have rather mediocre state and local services. (Apart from the universities, which are excellent.) Meanwhile, we are usually the number one net donor to other states in terms of federal taxes, according this and this and this (pdf).

Now I know that not all of that goes to social services in other states -- some of it goes to military bases, for example. But given that the military-security-intelligence complex is essentially today's jobs program, I feel it comes close to amounting to the same thing -- we Californians pay for jobs in Alabama.

I am also aware that there have to be net donor and net recipient states, and that California is richer than Alabama.

But... sometimes it REALLY feels like a scam. People in "red states" scream and holler about their taxes, while -- with the notable exception of Texas -- paying far less state taxes and drawing far MORE from the federal coffers. In other words, the anti-tax red-staters are actually being heavily subsidized by other people's taxes, and then complaining about it!

This makes me very glum. I'm happy to help people in Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, and all the other places that get my money. I recognize that there's inequality and that rich states have to help poor states and so on. But I also think that once a state has established its identity as an anti-tax red state, that state frequently benefits enormously from that identity. And the peculiar construction of our federal system, which even today gives state governments so much leeway and state representatives and senators so much power to draw disproportionate amounts of money to their relatively underpopulated states....


Any words of comfort for a California limousine liberal? This thought has been depressing me since I got into a fight with someone from a state with no income tax who was crying about how his taxes might go up.

I think it's a difficult thing to be a liberal living anywhere in America these days, Seth, and so I don't know how much I can offer by way of comfort aside from commiseration.

The Republicans were extraordinarily successful in the '80s and '90s in transforming "liberal" into a pejorative. It's a kind of stupefying accomplishment, really: for almost a century American progressives and liberals were responsible for so many key accomplishments in making the United States a livable country: liberals led the way in providing financial assistance for the old, the sick, and the very young; created standards for medical products and edible food; established national parks and standards for clean air and water; enabled progress in civil rights for minorities and women; etc., this is surely only a partial list. The 20th Century had been the liberal century, and yet by the end of it the centrists were being derided as "socialists" and the far left had become essentially impotent.

Part of what's funny about this is that it's resulted in a major distortion of reality. You write:

Now I know that not all of that goes to social services in other states -- some of it goes to military bases, for example. But given that the military-security-intelligence complex is essentially today's jobs program, I feel it comes close to amounting to the same thing....

Let's strip that of the qualifiers, because your gut is right: the MSI complex is today's jobs program and does provide the equivalent of social welfare for millions of Americans, who are unappreciative of the irony. There are millions of Americans who would deride New Deal programs that provided direct Federal employment for photographers, writers and theatre companies as socialism, but they'll go into violent throes over what the closing of a military base will do to the local economy and ecstasies over the prospect of a Boeing contract to build weapons coming to town. And then we have to listen to them bitching that their taxes might go up to pay for it all.

And when there's such an enormous disparity between net donors and net recipients, it's undeniably unfair. The problem, unfortunately, is that it's systematically unfair: I have no idea what could be done to fix the situation beyond either idiots in red states electing rational people or rational people in blue states electing selfish morons. That's the first thing. The second thing would be that the structural problems actually run deeper than that and are much older: some of the states receiving the most Federal assistance while paying the least to carry their own weight are states that would essentially be Third World countries if they were suddenly left to their own devices--I don't know if a state like Alabama, which in many respects has barely progressed socially or industrially since the American Civil War, could survive independently, and I suspect a state like Alaska would only be able to maintain itself as a kind of Arctic equivalent of a Middle Eastern quasi-fiefdom, with no regard for its environment or the actual well-being of its citizenry.

If you eliminated state borders, or eliminated Federalism by retaining state borders only for the purposes of defining administrative districts, would that disparity change? You'd still have some districts which were more prosperous than others, some districts administered more corruptly than others. It might be easier, perhaps, if instead of regions electing their own governors, they elected a Federal government which appointed regional governors, but even if that implausible solution were somehow agreed to (it would require a Constitutional Convention, obviously), I fear some governors would still be facing almost impossible tasks.

Which is interesting to muse upon, but it doesn't really answer your question.

Maybe I should start again.

Seth, you're absolutely right that it's not fair, and that the way the system is set up encourages some people in some parts of the country to exploit others--and to not even realize they're doing it, leading them to bitch unfairly.

But we liberals are, hopefully, on the right side of history. This sounds boastful and arrogant, I'm sure, and I'm afraid it can't be helped. This isn't to say liberals have a monopoly on truth, whatever it might be, or that conservatives never have any good ideas, because they often do. But as an ethos, liberalism is on the side of the future, on the side of the optimistic notion that society can be made better through an application of reason and on the premise that individuals, while fallible, ultimately have a better nature that can be prevailed upon. As an ethos, conservatives, by definition, presume the past was better and people will always be the same--especially, though they rarely admit this out loud--when it comes to individuals' worse natures. This also isn't to say that liberals reject the past: but liberalism inherently sees humanity as a work in progress, while conservatism is predisposed to see humanity as a finished piece.

I realize this is painting with a broad brush. And I don't offer it with the intent to disparage, though I also realize it's probably the inevitable consequence of such statements. It also probably chafes those inclined to adopt the popular "liberals = big government / conservatives = small government" definition of those systems, but that definition has always been prone to failure, anyway, since (a) it fails to acknowledge that liberals are willing to let government be as large as it needs to be but few, if any, advocate big government for its own sake (the converse doesn't seem to be true for conservatives for some reason) and (b) the conventional definition may not be applicable to the majority of American "conservatives," since the only actual small government conservatives in American politics are the Objectivists and libertarians, who hew to a philosophy that is self-evidently absurd to adults (in the former case) and non-autistics (in the latter); in any case, for the apparent majority of American "conservatives," what they mean by "small government" is that they don't want their taxes spent on anything they don't personally approve of--typically billion dollar military contracts and the expansion of Federal surveillance powers to catch alleged terrorists are okay, but several thousand dollars spent to give inner-city kids something to do other than join a gang is a waste and a joke and spending anything on an owl is right out of the question.

So here are my words of comfort, Seth: you have embraced a value system that has been on a long walk against a strong wind since the Enlightenment, and sometimes it seems like we get blown back three steps for every half-step we muster, but in the end what we have is what is needed to get through--not the certain answers, but the belief those answers are out there. American conservatives have lately taken to mocking Hope, which may show just how bankrupt their ideology has become, if you think about it: I mean, these people aren't out there saying, "I hope for something different from what the President hopes for," or anything along those lines, no, they appear to be scoffing at the idea a grown man would bring it up in politics at all, as if anybody who gloms onto the idea that anybody might be offering it is a fool and a twit. (If the prerequisite for being a conservative is to abandon all hope, ye who enter into the ideology, well, perhaps it's a form of personal Hell, then.) One of America's loudest (and highest pitched) conservative voices likes to ask how the "hopey-changey thing" is working out: well, isn't the alternative to hope and change despair and stagnation? In which case, no thanks, I'll stick to the "hopey" and the "changey" even if it sometimes feels like I'm pounding my forehead against a stone wall as high as ignorance is deep and thick as fear.

This is what we have to offer, this is the liberal tradition: that we can change, and in changing, perhaps tomorrow will be better than yesterday, and if it isn't, well, we can try again. It's tough now, but it always is, y'know?


Dr. Phil (Physics) Monday, October 25, 2010 at 12:28:00 PM EDT  

The problem is not a Californian problem. It's not even a rich state problem. Michigan, with its double-digit unemployment rate, crumbling infrastructure and net population loss over decades is also a net donor state. Go figure.

Dr. Phil

Janiece Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:12:00 PM EDT  

::Hi, Seth! How's the family?::

I think it's always worth it to be a liberal, actually. In spite of our inability to agree on anything but the broadest of principles, our failure at staying on message, and our lamentable tendency to attack each other at the worst possible political moment, can you imagine if we weren't around?

Eric Monday, October 25, 2010 at 4:30:00 PM EDT  

There's an interesting question, Janiece: should we lefties do the insanely juvenile and irresponsible thing and "go Galt"? Are we even capable of such a crass, selfish act, he wondered in jest?

Seth Monday, October 25, 2010 at 7:25:00 PM EDT  

Hey Eric (and Janiece) --

Thanks for the words of encouragement. And I get it -- we have to keep making the argument, because if we don't, things will be worse than they are.

I'm, on most subjects, a pinko liberal because I think we're all in this together, and acting like it's the Wild West and we're all independent actors is unbecoming of anyone in touch with reality. And while there are occasional true-blue libertarians, I think most of the anti-collectivist, give-me-liberty shtick is people attempting to game the system that's supposed to be for everyone.

I guess, with regard to this specific point, I wonder why liberal commentators and politicians don't hit these points harder.

As you point out, base closings = despair in local communities, while new contracts = joy. And I wish liberal politicians -- especially people like Presidents Obama and Clinton, who are good with numbers -- would kind of bring that up, and point out that a lot of these bases and programs are redundant and wasteful, and if the government is going to spend money on jobs for local communities, why not spend it on something more useful, like roads and experimental power plants?

And similarly, I wish that more pols and the commentariat would make it clearer that federal tax dollars often most benefit those who are griping loudest about them, and really hit that point home.

And Janiece, the family's doing well. The blog's been sitting idle 'cause I'm trying to figure out what I want it to be next. But we're doing well, thanks!

Captain Splendid,  Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 2:14:00 PM EDT  

Nicely put. Will be bookmarking this for future inspiration.

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