July 08, 2005

Self-Interest Has No Clothes

Steven Rose's essay, "Talking about Social Class," makes some worthwhile points. He argues that most voters probably wouldn't vote Democratic on the basis of perceived economic self-interest, even if the party adopted a bold, Thomas Frank-style populist platform. Since Rose phrases his thesis somewhat sloppily, I'm trying to restate it as precisely as possible: A populist platform might end up being popular for a variety of reasons, and it might in reality be in the self-interest of the majority of workers to vote for it, but it's unlikely that workers would overwhelmingly vote for it because they believed they would gain personally. (And that's not because they're stupid; it's because the benefits are highly non-obvious.)

The key statistics Rose hauls out: Only 23 percent of all adults earn, on average over the long run, under $40,000; which means that less than a quarter of all workers stand to benefit significantly from most safety net programs. (Democrats tend to overestimate this "safety-net constituency" since they usually only look at income data from a single year.) Moreover, the "industrial proletariat" in America is quite small—only about 34 percent of male workers and 10 percent of female workers—whereas about 35 percent of male and female workers have high end managerial and professional jobs, like the dude on the right. Under the circumstances, then, most people care about workplace issues like minimum wage, forced overwork, occupational health and safety, the right to unionize, unemployment benefits, and retraining, but this support is probably soft, and none of these issues are necessarily election-winners.

So what can the Democrats campaign on that would appeal to the perceived self-interest of voters? The Bush tax cuts? Eh, thus far, both Reagan and Bush have proved that deficits really don't matter. Now that's a bit of a lie: These deficits do matter because they're the wrong type of deficits to run, and they do matter because at the current pace, interest costs will eventually grow faster than GDP, leading to fiscal Armageddon. But over the past four years, inflation has been low, long-term rates are still bafflingly low, and the investment share of GDP is actually a bit higher than its long-run average. No, deficits just haven't mattered.

Hammering on the uninsured won't appeal to voters' perceived self-interest either. As Rose reminds us, 80 percent of Americans have insurance; Democrats simply aren't going to grab people with this issue right now. (Rose: "The Democratic edge in public opinion polls on health care is somewhat illusory because each specific policy initiative has much less support." True that.) Meanwhile, I've argued before that it's very keenly in that 80 percent's self-interest to keep the remaining 20 percent uninsured. Yes, moral arguments about "community" and "caring for your neighbor" might push the uninsured issue forward. Naked selfishness simply won't. And by the way, I'm extremely skeptical that some "inevitable" health crisis is going to hit and cause "the people" to rise up and demand single-payer.

Trade isn't a spectacular "self-interest" issue either, because very few people are actually affected negatively by trade. 82.7 percent of workers work in administration or business services, health care, education, or "low-skill sales and service," and most of these workers have actually benefited from the lower prices on goods ushered in by globalization. Now obviously people may have strong opinions on trade agreements, but again, few of those opinions are likely to be based on self-interest. In certain regions trade populism could potentially do well, but after Inez Tennenbaum's loss to Jim DeMint in SC last year—and that was the perfect experiment for this hypothesis—I don't know how widely applicable this is.

Meanwhile, the varieties of corporation-bashing can only go so far. Many people—many Republicans even—distrust large companies, it's true, and the recent Pew Press poll let us know that many of these voters even favor "business regulations" in the abstract. But on another level, as one of Rose's charts show, 43.5 percent of Americans work in "Office Administration and Business Services," and many of those workers, as he puts it, "have interests in common with their employers because the success of their company is necessary for them to keep their jobs." Again, it's not clear that workers would think it in their self-interest to vote for a party that promises to take on large corporations, although that stance may resonate just because so many people dislike elite institutions.

So is economic populism a lost cause? No, I don't think so. For starters, many progressive policies are still the right policies on the merits, even if they can't always be sold in self-interest terms. (If "only" 20 percent of workers are uninsured, that's important—even if it's not actually an election-winner.) Also, Thomas Frank-style populism would likely appeal to the self-interest of some voters, even if it's not an overwhelming majority. Let's not forget that John Kerry only lost by a little bit in the last election. Potentially another Democratic presidential candidate could craft a populist message, on Frank-esque lines, that could win over enough Bush voters to tip the presidential balance his or her way. With a little luck, who knows?

On the other hand, a more enduring progressive electoral majority definitely seems like it would be harder to forge on economic populism alone, barring a return of the Great Depression. That said, there are many other issues that haven't been discussed here—Peter Gosselin's focus on income instability, the issues Elizabeth Warren brings up in The Two Income Trap, Nancy Folbre's thoughts on how to help women balance work and family—which could well gain traction. Alternatively, Democrats could unleash the (plausible) argument that their policies are, in fact, much better for the economy as a whole, although I do believe an economic crisis would have to erupt before this argument could sink its teeth in. And if Social Security is still an issue come 2006, that certainly works to the Democrats' favor, although between bombs in London and Sandra Day O'Connor that possibility seems less and less likely by the day.

But Rose's larger argument—that the majority of Americans just don't feel screwed enough that they feel the need to act politically (and remember, it's probably only pundits who think that every single economic problem can and ought to be solved through electoral politics)—may well be true, and if true, probably important.
-- Brad Plumer 9:08 PM || ||