Home > Uncategorized > What You Can’t Say, political edition

What You Can’t Say, political edition

November 7, 2010

In his famous essay; What You Can’t Say, Paul Graham explored how we’re restricted by social and moral fashions. Well every since Ronald Reagan looked sincerely into the camera and said pithy little homilies about “smaller government”, you can’t say; “It will be necessary to raise your taxes”. Not even when it’s true.

Thanks, Ron; you broke our country and now our country is broke.

He said; “It’s your money, not the government’s money” and voters said; “Hey, yeah!” And he challenged Gerry Ford in the primary and we all learned about how “government is not the answer, government is the problem!” No thanks, said the Republicans; we’ll give Ford another go. But Ford reminded the country of Nixon, and mister Carter Went To Washington.

And prop 13 passed and California became ungovernable. But for a brief interval between the loss of tax revenue and the collapse of infrastructure, fake prosperity reigned. So Ronnie was a big hero and went on pushing the whole country toward California’s model.

He said; “A government big enough to provide everything you need is big enough to take away everything you have”. A shiver went down our collective spines and we made him President. And tax rates fell and deficits went up and we kept driving on the highways that were built during Eisenhower’s administration, when the maximum rate was above 90%. We forgot all about the aging water and sewer lines, and the bridges, and the grid. And we just let problems like water supply and the reality of climate change wait until some more convenient time.  It seemed like prosperity.

Democrats now bore the Scarlett Letters; “Tax And Spend”, as if “Borrow And Spend” were some kind of improvement. And deficits soared and Bush The Elder came in and while no one was minding the store, the banks collapsed. And the government borrowed money to bail them out, and new regulations were put in place, immediately to be drilled full of holes.

Bill Clinton became president and had an affair and Family Values Adulterer Newt Gingrich assailed him on it, and he was impeached and ended his second term in disgrace, leaving our country shamefully at peace with a budget surplus and paying down its debt. And thus began eight more years of Conservative rule in which unexplored heights of deficit spending were attained, civil rights were made suspect in the War On Terror, and tax rates of the super-rich fell to new lows. And for those same eight years everything was Bill Clinton’s fault, the dirty bastard.

But toward the end nobody was minding the store and the banks collapsed and the government stepped in to save them and then blamed it on the new guy, conveniently forgetting that the new guy made the old guy’s program work pretty well, actually, holding off a new Great Depression and saving GM in the bargain. It was (and is) a true emergency and deficit spending makes sense in an emergency even if it was created by someone else. But Conservatives didn’t like the new guy so they made all that deficit spending his fault somehow. Perhaps they want him to be a one-term president so they can blame the next eight years of catastrophe on him.

And during all this time the roads didn’t even have the courtesy to stop getting older, nor the water delivery system, nor the bridges or dams, and the climate didn’t even think to hold off on change-driven drought so that the Oglalla aquifer kept dropping and Hoover Dam is counting the days until they’ll have to turn off the turbines. And nobody mistakes it for prosperity except the super-rich, who have been doing very well indeed.

We’re being had, people. It’s past time to push back against the rhetoric of Saint Ronald. Government is the corporation of the people for the management and protection of the commons. Like any corporation, it can be effective or not depending on the competence of the people we hire to run it. Try to run any company with ideologues and cronies and sweetheart deals, and you’re going to be in trouble fast.

Conservatives preach a kind of prosperity that amounts to growing crops without spending money on fertilizer. It’s like running a trucking firm but not doing scheduled maintenance on the trucks. Sure, you post higher profits for a while, but “What are Conservatives conserving?”

Well the Traditional Family, of course.  And fiscal sanity, defined as never deficit-spending on any humanitarian purpose.  And corporate welfare, for which we need no better evidence than the three billion dollars that poured into conservative campaigns this midterm.  Because when all is said and done, whatever you think the real issues are, ask yourself; did the corporations that donated all that money really care about gay marriage, or gun rights?  Or was it more about stopping unemployment benefits, or an end of their monopoly on health care exploitation, or the freedom to keep profiting from the energy status quo as long as possible?  As always, the real issue is hiding behind the money.  And all those “social conservative” issues are just ideological leverage.


  • I have edited the section about Reagan’s challenge to Ford since first posting this essay.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ray M
    November 7, 2010 at 16:42 | #1

    This is why I follow your bog – thank you, George, for a(nother) great essay.

    It continues to defy understanding – well mine, anyway – how people can so easily be persuaded to vote against what are obviously their own self-interests.

  2. November 7, 2010 at 17:34 | #2

    Perhaps a reason people can so easily be persuaded to vote against what are obviously their own self-interests is that techniques of persuasion have advanced far beyond the development of any counter measures.

    If that is so, Ray, then I think that is likely to remain the case for some time. It seems to me the public is in some sense a bit like a prey animal upon whom a predator has been unleashed that is an evolutionary jump or two ahead. I believe it will take the public a long time to catch up.

  3. November 7, 2010 at 20:44 | #3

    Yes … fine tune propaganda, but you have to dumb down the population to make that work. Corporate-funded media and NCLB … perfect.

  4. November 8, 2010 at 06:01 | #4

    I think that’s a good point, WeeDram, although I have one minor quibble. I myself would be careful about asserting (if indeed you are asserting) that it is absolutely necessary to dumb down the population in order to make the various techniques of persuasion work. I would argue it is highly desirable, but not necessary.

  5. November 8, 2010 at 11:55 | #5

    Do we have liberals now arguing that it is “highly desirable” to “dumb down the population” so that the population can be persuaded to see the problems with Conservatives that they see? What’s happened to the ultimate solution, education? Can we now see it for the farce that it really has become – where the people who want to be in charge are less concerned about individuals learning to become free thinkers and more concerned about making sure people agree with them.

    That’s my problem with liberals and conservatives. Both groups think more governmental control (in their areas of interest) is a good thing and less governmental control (where they don’t want it) is a good thing. Liberals want more economic controls and less social controls. Conservatives want less economic controls and more social controls.

    And both groups, regardless of what you tell them, will argue that their way is better, so reality is that it is probably worthless to point out the similarities between the two. They’ll just both argue the more strongly that the opposite camp is evil, so they can’t be like them.

    Of course, I think George’s essay is well written, but it does have a few implications that are wrong. Reagan did challenge Gerald Ford in the primaries, but he lost to Ford. He won the presidency against Carter. He talks about how taxes went down and deficits went up, but fails to mention that tax income also went up. He points out times when nobody was minding the “store,” disregarding that some of his liberal Democrats were co-owners of the keys to the store.

  6. dof
    November 8, 2010 at 12:32 | #6

    David – you are right that section was unclear: it is an editing error where I removed a whole section on Carter that nearly doubled the essay’s length. Carter is a whole ‘nother essay. I shall tweak.

    His challenge against Ford was the first time I became aware of Reagan’s philosophy, and I thought he was really onto something. When he ran against Carter, I voted for him – a mistake I shall never live down.

    The real string-pullers in the Conservative parties – and here I include Tea Partiers and Libertarians – are tools of corporate plunder. They’re funding a lot of social-control ads though, because pumping up fear of gays and Muslims and Mexicans and – so help me – Communists! is an easy way to get enough votes to acquire the necessary power.

    You seem to want less government altogether. I suggest you visit scenic, sunny Somalia for a while. Let me know if you had a good time there.

  7. Ray M
    November 8, 2010 at 12:39 | #7

    David – I’m sure you’re correct on your factual data, but I should point out that we were discussing how the recent election results could have been possible, and that one of the major factors was the “dumbing down” of the general population. Indeed, it seems to me that a (truly) informed, rational populace would never embrace huge tax cuts for the obscenely wealthy while at the same time lobbying to repeal the first efforts this country has made towards providing health care for everyone.

    As for “liberals”, there really has never been such a thing in this country, at least not in any political party that actually wielded significant power. I moved here from the UK 20 years ago, and one of the first things that struck me was how much less free I felt here than at home. More regulation. More (vastly more!) paperwork. Less personal security (i.e. I could lose everything I had ever worked for if I happened to become ill). And on and on.

    But still, it seems to me that you are not fair in tarring both parties with the same brush. Even though they are centrist conservative in their positions, at least Democrats try to implement policies that improve the general good of the people (and isn’t that what your beloved constitution requires?). The Republicans, though, have become shills for the enormously rich, while at the same time successfully persuading those they are unashamedly exploiting to vote for them.

  8. dof
    November 8, 2010 at 12:47 | #8

    David – I’ve tweaked the Ford section, see if that’s better. Thanks. (Cut-and-paste is a wonderful thing but sometimes it gives rise to clunky editing)

  9. November 8, 2010 at 13:31 | #9

    David: “Do we have liberals now arguing that it is “highly desirable” to “dumb down the population” so that the population can be persuaded to see the problems with Conservatives that they see?”

    Uh…no. You’ve misunderstood what was being said.

  10. November 8, 2010 at 14:32 | #10

    George (dof): Yes, definitely better on Ford. You’re right, I do want less government. But Somalia is no government. I didn’t say I wanted no government. I’m not an anarchist. I consider myself closer to a minarchist, if I have to accept an external label of any, which I don’t really like but can’t prevent.

    Ray M: Did you read Paul Graham’s essay that George linked? I’m just asking how different are the liberals and conservatives – or if you feel better to use different terms – Democrats and Republicans? I personally think the thing you can’t say is how similar the two parties are. You’re questioning how the 2010 election could have possibly happened in a country that is well-educated and thinking. I heard the exact same question about the 2008 presidential election from the conservatives.

    Paul Sunstone: If I’ve misunderstood, then please clarify. It appears to me that in your statement that you “… would argue it is highly desirable,” it is the ability to dumb down the population so they can be more easily persuaded to believe what you believe instead of what your opponents believe.

  11. dof
    November 8, 2010 at 14:54 | #11

    Nonsense, David; you can say the parties are similar. And you’d be partly right in saying so. But there are stark differences, in areas that matter. For instance, ALL the Republicans in the Senate want to trash Net Neutrality. Every last one wants to dump large-scale infrastructure development like high-speed rail. All but one or two oppose marriage equality. And every last one of them denies that global warming is happening and that it is human caused, and that we need to do something about it.

    As individuals they may hold individual opinions but they’re voting like a single organism, or more correctly an organ, of the twin influences of big business and the Religious Right.

    As for having as little government as possible, what to discard? Clean water? Truth in mortgage advertising? Safe workplace? And clearly you want to go on paying more for your health care than people do in other countries that have better infant mortality and lifespan stats than we do. Maybe making some huge corporation even richer warms your heart, I don’t know.

  12. November 8, 2010 at 15:47 | #12

    David, I can see how you misread it. In light of your mistake, I can see I worded it very poorly. However, I intended those words to be taken as spoken from the point of view of the ad agencies, public relations firms, political parties, and other organizations that manipulate the public. Not from the point of view of liberals.

  13. November 9, 2010 at 11:08 | #13

    Paul S: Are you saying that liberals/Democrats never use ad agencies, aren’t in political parties, and aren’t trying to manipulate the public, i.e. persuade the public to an opinion? I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in a while.

    George (dof): It would be a matter of opinion of whether or not your differences between the parties amount to more than their similarities. To me, they don’t. Both sides want more government. Maybe toward different ends, but the means are the same: take freedoms/liberties away from people because they have “the right” to take those freedoms and liberties.

    And as to your questions about what to get rid of, I consider most of those red herrings that don’t consider the companion question: what do you want for yourself? My health care costs are going up, for one. 25% increase in premiums in one year with no change in coverage. Because of Obama’s health care plan.

    My point is that when I ask for less government, I am asking for an impossibility on two fronts. I want less government intrusion and more individual responsibility and freedom. The government won’t give it up, and most individuals won’t pick it up. I personally don’t believe the federal government’s role was to get involved directly in nearly as much as it did. There are some areas that state governments or local governments may have had the right to be involved, but in general, there are many areas for which individuals should have more responsibility.

    But I live in a pipe dream (sarcasm intended, of course). Why would people take responsibility for themselves if they can just turn it over to the government? Why would they want to decide what they should do with their lives – why pick their education, why pick what they eat or drink, why pick who they want as a doctor, why pick who they want to fight, why pick what they consider moral, why pick their religion, when the All-Benevolent, God-Replacing Big Government can take on all these burdens for them? Why would anyone want freedom?

    • November 9, 2010 at 11:09 | #14

      George, by the way, I’ve noticed that the timestamp seems to be related to the server location or something. I’m typing at 5:00 a.m. local.

  14. November 10, 2010 at 00:54 | #15

    Of course, I am saying no such ridiculous thing, David. Of course liberals use techniques of persuasion. But I don’t see them using those techniques as a means of getting the middle and lower classes to vote against their own interests. Do you?

  15. November 10, 2010 at 10:42 | #16

    Paul S: Are you really going down the whole “class envy” path? Okay, I’m probably middle class by pay grade, and I saw the liberals communications as attempting to persuade me to vote against my own self interest. After all, my health care costs went up.

  16. dof
    November 10, 2010 at 12:37 | #17

    David, you know health care costs have been rising faster than inflation for quite some time, right? “Skyrocketing” is a common term that is pretty close to correct. The health insurance companies have pulled out all the stops to stop Obama and prevent – at any cost – a public option. Naturally they are saying the latest increase is his fault. But the GAO analysis of the health care and HC insurance industries came to a stark conclusion that the present system wasn’t sustainable. There wasn’t a choice about whether change was needed.

    We are paying anywhere from thirty percent to more than double the health care costs of countries that have better results than we do. And in any case, are you OK with health insurance companies just dropping people when they get sick? Picture this: your doctor tells you that you have cancer. Your insurance company gets the claim and finds a reason to drop you. Or you have a child with a birth defect and when you change jobs the child cannot be insured. That OK with you? Or do you believe that for some reason it couldn’t happen to you, and just not care if it happens to anyone else?

    • November 10, 2010 at 19:45 | #18

      George: Yet last year my premiums held the same as the year before. Yes, I keep hearing that health care costs keep skyrocketing, but I’ve not seen the proof, and the example really was one to counter Paul S.’s assertion that liberals are not using persuasion techniques to get the middle class to vote against their self interest. My point is that a) I consider myself middle class, and b) it was in my self interest to not vote for the people that increased my health care costs.

      Now, you mention the GAO’s analysis of healthcare, but have you forgotten that the jumps and twists the Congressional Budget Office has taken in trying to explain the overall cost of this bill that we were (in)famously told we would have to pass before we could find out what was in it? The estimated costs of this bill law keep going up. I agree that a change needed to be made, but I disagree on what that change should have been.

      Okay, so we’re paying more than other countries for our healthcare with poorer results. First, of those countries, are you taking into account the much higher taxes that they have to pay? Second, of those countries countries that still apply, how many of those countries provide the entirety of their own defense vs. relying even in part on the United States for their defense (Japan, German, etc.)? Last, if our healthcare is so much worse than theirs, why are their citizens coming to the United States for healthcare?

      And your theorical story is, of course, appalling. But how many times have you heard it? I have yet to see this happen, personally, and while I may be wrong, I was under the impression that there were already laws against that issue in many places.

      But, okay, improvements need to be made. If those improvements were made, why did Congress give themselves an exception so that they aren’t subject to the law? To state it as a humorous analogy, I’m pretty certain I won’t drink from the cup that the offerer won’t drink from themselves.

  17. November 10, 2010 at 14:33 | #19

    David “Are you really going down the whole “class envy” path?”

    What an interesting spin, David! Why on earth do you say that? I would immensely desire you laid out any real evidence you have that I’m advocating class envy.

    • November 10, 2010 at 19:59 | #20

      Paul S: You’re the one that brought up the phrase “… middle and lower classes to vote against their own interests” as opposed to the implied rich. Well, George also mentioned the “…super-rich.”

      But no one has explained to me why I should be against them. It is a very common us-versus-them, divide-and-conquer tactic. The hope of the people that use the tactic is that those they are trying to persuade by the use of the tactic ignore some facts: the poorer people (generally) want to be in the richer class, but if I ask the government to enact laws against the rich, then those laws may one day apply to me, against my own self interest. As Thomas Paine pointed out, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

  18. dof
    November 10, 2010 at 19:38 | #21

    Interesting article out today. Colorado regulators did the math: Health reform not behind steep hikes. But of course the HC companies have good reason to wish you would think otherwise.

    • November 10, 2010 at 20:21 | #22

      Any time I hear someone argue/state that the health reform law is not part of the premium increases, I begin to wonder whether or not they or I have an unsound understanding of economics.

      I regularly hear the following ideas from people in favor of the healthcare law:

      a) government will make sure “the evil” healthcare insurance companies will not be allowed to drop coverage on anyone, regardless of how expensive they may be to insure.

      b) the government will not actually be paying for it, so it won’t affect our taxes.

      c) the public option is promoting competition.

      I cannot put those together under any understanding I have of economics. Businesses cannot increase their risk of loss without increasing their means of covering that loss if they plan on continuing to be in business, but everyone wants to tell me those insurance companies will cover (what was it? 33 million more Americans?) a large new group of people without being able to drop high risk/cost plans without an increase of cost to the rest of the people they cover and they’ll stay in business.

      George, you made fun once of my Ayn Rand inspired opinions of economics from Atlas Shrugged, but this appears to me to be the same thing as what happened in her book, but instead of the government telling the railroads that they had to remain in business at a loss, now it’s insurance companies. I know I’d revolt.

      Think about it George. What would you do if you were told you had to maintain about 40% more computers at work with no increase in income allowed, no additional costs allowed to be billed to anyone, and those computers have to improve their operations dramatically?

      No, conservatives and liberals both often get things wrong, but in this case, the liberals really messed up, and regardless of the spin they try and put on it, people saw it for what it was and decided enough was enough.

  19. November 11, 2010 at 00:06 | #23

    David: You’re over-thinking it. I have nothing against the rich in general, although I vastly prefer Bill Gates over the conservative Koch brothers. Furthermore, I do not at all like the class warfare in this country that Warren Buffett points out was begun by the uber-rich. So, I can only conclude you have a gift for reading into people’s remarks the meanings you wish to see there. My hat’s off to you. Such objectivity is commendable.

  20. dof
    November 14, 2010 at 18:04 | #24

    I meant to address this bit of nonsense. David implies that rescission is so uncommon that it is not important:

    “And your theorical story is, of course, appalling. But how many times have you heard it? I have yet to see this happen, personally, and while I may be wrong, I was under the impression that there were already laws against that issue in many places.”

    First of all, even if it was rare, it should still be illegal. Murder is relatively rare in this country (“only” about 5 per 100,000). Should it be legal if a company does it, because it is “rare”? And no, there weren’t laws against it in most places; that was the whole point of the national law. What laws did exist were actually written by insurance company lobbyists.

    Second, we’re not talking about the flu or a broken leg here. Insurance companies were specifically targeting people with expensive diseases for rescission. That sort of undermines the reason we buy insurance in the first place, doesn’t it? Would you lecture Wellpoint’s victims about “personal responsibility”?

    Third, because of that targeting it is not at all rare when you consider the action of conditional probability on policy holders. The testimony given to Congress by insurance industry execs sounded less awful in absolute numbers, but the numbers look very different depending which set you compare them to. The rate of rescission was actually quite high in relation to the set of people to whom it mattered most.

    Now if you feel that insurance companies shouldn’t have to insure people who might get sick, you’re making a very good argument for a public option. Which is what I wanted in the first place, and is one of my major disappointments with Obama. It all comes down to the mandate of public vs. private. Whatever the faults of either one, the public sector has a mandate of the general welfare, and the private sector has a mandate to make higher profits for the mutual funds that hold their stock. Maybe that business model is better suited to competitively-priced goods in open markets that don’t have life-or-death consequences, than to the health insurance industry. (Which as I’m sure you know, shares with professional baseball the distinction of being the only American industry that is exempt from anti-trust laws.)

    Here’s a transcript of some of the Congressional hearings on Rescission. It’s pretty appalling stuff.

    Also, Paul and Dave, take a lookee at this comparison on Flowing Data of Comparison of Republican and Democratic tax plans. You might both find it interesting for different reasons.

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