False Symmetry, Again

An excited conservative commenter called my attention to a column published in my local paper. The column was written by two long-time Washington insiders, Cokie and Steve Roberts.

Cokie, currently an analyst and commentator for, respectively, NPR and ABC News (and lately appearing now and then on MSNBC), is the daughter of a Democratic congressman (who was once Majority Leader in the House and who died in a 1972 plane crash) and of a Democratic congresswoman (who was elected to replace her husband and who served from 1973 to 1991). Both of Cokie’s parents served the good folks who live in and around New Orleans. Steve Roberts, a magna cum laude Harvard graduate, has worked as a journalist for The New York Times and The Washington Post and for U.S. News and World Report. He also plays the analyst and commentator role on both radio and television.

You get it by now. These two are the very definition of “Beltway insiders.”

The column that so excited my conservative commenter, titled in most papers as ‘The rise of liberal self-delusion,” began this way:

The civil war ripping through the Republican Party is familiar by now. But a similar battle inside the Democratic Party is just starting to emerge. Orthodox liberals are trying to mimic the tea party and impose political correctness on moderate apostates.

Ahh, I thought to myself.  It was only a matter of time. It was only a matter of time before some prominent Democratic commentators joined the anti-liberal Third Way crowd by comparing what recently energized  liberals are doing to what Tea Party nuts like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have been doing for some time now. There apparently is a law of symmetry in the physics of polite political punditry that occasionally requires the obligatory “both sides are guilty” column or TV rant, and the Roberts duo did not disappoint.

They unbelievably and absurdly compared the nomination of Tea Party freaks like Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donell and Sharron “Second Amendment remedies” Angle and Todd “legitimate rape” Akin to Elizabeth Warren and New York’s Bill de Blasio. They took the hopeful, if unrealistic, words of a very liberal and very excitable guy, Adam Green (who co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that dares to help liberals run political campaigns as liberals and, much to the chagrin of Wall Streeters, sometimes win as liberals), and turned those words into “nonsense” and “self delusion.” It’s as if the anti-liberals of the Third Way, that group of mostly wealthy quasi-Democrats who work and play in Manhattan’s Financial District, had dictated this column from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

It’s not that there isn’t a point to be made about ideological “purists” who think that their brand of politics is a perfect fit in every nook and cranny of the country.  Of course it is ridiculous, at this point in time, for liberals and progressives to think that a bona fide left-winger could win in a bona fide backwater state like Arkansas (the example the two pundits used was former Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln, who was challenged in the 2010 primary in Arkansas by “a left-wing primary opponent”). I have criticized some liberal Democrats myself (including Adam Green) for not recognizing the sobering reality that in places like where I live, here in Petticoat Joplin, running on in-your-face orthodox liberalism is not a winning strategy for knocking Republican Ozark Billy Long off his taxpayer-subsidized D.C. bar stool. So, it’s not bad advice to warn Democrats that ideological purity can be harmful to the overall cause.

But for two prominent Democratic columnists to say that well-meaning liberal Democrats “want to impose their orthodoxies on everyone else”—just like what they call the ‘Ted Cruz Wing” of the Republican Party wants to do—is beyond absurd. The extremism of Ted Cruz and other teapartiers is real extremism, representing reactionary, roll-back-the-clock danger to the country. Does Cokie and Steve Roberts think that trans-vaginal probes are the moral and political equivalent of, say, tougher banking laws? Huh? Liberals are not authoritarians seeking to force Americans to bow their knees to Iron Age biblical morality or to the politics derived from selective readings, or from convenient interpretations, of the Old and New Testaments. They are mostly people who think that the wealthiest country in the history of the world ought not to have so many working class folks struggling to survive in the midst of all that wealth, and that an appeal to common sense and decency should be sufficient to make the point.

The Roberts’ column, as an apparent tribute to Beltway blindness, puts Elizabeth Warren, as sober and sane a thinker as you will find in politics, in the category of “the loony left.” As if economic populism is on a par with kill-the-New-Deal conservatism. As if fighting for reproductive and gay and voting rights is equally as extreme as shutting down Planned Parenthood and promoting Bible-inspired homophobia and making it harder for minorities to vote. As if believing in science is the same as, well, not believing in science.

“This is a moderate, pragmatic country. Any party that ignores that truth is doomed to defeat,” the D.C. pundit power couple say with Third Party conviction. Yeah, well, moderation and pragmatism are not the same things. Political moderation is a product of compromise between competing visions, even if the competing visions themselves are often fierce and intense and far from moderate. Pragmatism in politics is the idea that compromise is sometimes necessary to solve problems. In other words, pragmatism leads to compromise, which leads to moderation. The salient point is that one can be a left- or right-winger, committed to one’s principles, committed to fighting for them, but still be a pragmatist who settles for some middle-of-the-road compromise to get things done, if that is truly the only way to get things done.

And when you see it that way, when you see it in the sense of getting things done, of making the government work, you can clearly see that there is no comparison between enthusiastic but ultimately pragmatic liberals and authoritarian Tea Party conservatives, folks who won’t compromise with anyone and who would shut the entire government down or ruin our national credit worthiness, hurting millions of people and costing billions of dollars, merely to make an ultimately fleeting political point.

Sadly, Cokie and Steve Roberts, guardians of the mythical “center” in American politics, can’t, or won’t, see the difference.



  1. ansonburlingame

     /  December 16, 2013

    Being the “excited conservative” that referenced the Roberts column, I am offer a counter to Duane’s take on matters.

    Moderation, to me, is gradual, incremental, taking on a problem one step at at time, etc. It is the opposite of a “leap forward” into uncharted waters, sometimes considered flying by the seat of your pants. Most Americans traditionally like moderation in political change, not wholesale and major changes. If nothing else, they want time to adjust to such new changes, gradual changes, just in case the wheels fall off the wagon due to unintended consequences, like Obamacare.

    Pragmatism on the other hand, at least to me, is figuring out how things will work out, for the good of all Americans, hopefully. Develop a new program and then ask the question “Will it work?” (and answer that question with rigorous honesty). Americans like such reassurances coming from leaders, an honest appraisal of how a new program will help all Americans.

    I can point out many errors over time by both parties when moderation and pragmatism, both, did not result. Bush’s approach to preemptive war, the invasion of Iraq, was not moderate or pragmatic and it failed to work out. We all saw the political results.

    Obama’s ACA was not moderate or pragmatic. Yet he PROMISED that “you will be able to keep your ……..” in his zeal to sell his program. We are now in the midst of that political fallout and await the end results.

    Then take a bigger step back from just a single programatic argument, like ACA. Look at the impending budget deal. Talk about moderate and pragmatic, saving all of maybe $2.3 Billion per year out of a $3.5 Trillion budget (annually) over the next ten years. That is so “moderate” it can be like watching a snails race. Basically it is NO change, fiscally, and a call for “business as usual”. But for sure it is pragmatic as well, easy to do. Cut or slow down one big DOD program and you can save $2.3 Billion in one year!!

    The Roberts column was, in my view, simply a mild word of caution to the left, the entire wing on that side of American politics. “Don’t turn into a loony left” was their call and in my view was a direct shot at this blog. The only time this blog challenges the President is when he does not go far enough left. Keep that up and the “left” begins to sound like the Tea Party on the other side, the “radical right”.

    If it comes to pass, that will be the key to a “Hillary Presidency” come 2016. Americans today consider Bill Clinton’s term as a historical pragamatic presidency, able to “go with the flow” of American politics. If Hillary can tap into that moderate and pragmatic blend of American sentiment she will win hands down against a Tea Party candidate from the right, in 2016.

    Since 9/11/2001 America has been lurching both right and left in politics and many Americans are just sick of it. Preemptive war, failed wars (two of them), an economic crisis still eating away at American fiscal progress, withering cities like Detroit, relativly high unemployment for 5 or more years, absolute failure in public education, a sure and gradual inability to sustain America defenses in a rapidly changing world today, and that list of woes goes on and on.

    We see a huge oil spill threatening the environment of an entire region of the nation and the Coast Guard runs around giving tickets to boat owners for failure to have enough life jackets on ships trying to clean up the oil. My, my how grand and effective our federal government has become in a crisis. Forget the oil spill and just look at Benghazi!!! OMG!! But then ask “what difference does it make (Benghazi, oil spills, Detroit, etc., etc.)”

    Remember “Lurch”, a James Bond character as I recall, a huge man with metal teeth, “lurching” all over the place throwing his weight around. Welcome to American federal government today in the eyes of many moderate and pragmatic American voters today. Ignore that image at your own political peril. But maybe, just maybe, Warren and Cruz will join together to filibuster the looming “budget deal” as “not enough” for either of them!!



  2. Both liberals and conservatives are compelled to reduce economics to simple terms in their attempts to explain their ideologies. But economics, that so-called discipline, is as much art as science. Pure capitalism is no more pragmatic than is pure socialism and the ideal mix is likely to be forever variable. I suppose that what drove the Roberts team to their column bashing Democratic purity. But Duane is right, he explains very well why progressive purity is not the mirror image of the Tea Party ideologues. I found a good example of this in a column by Herb Van Fleet in this morning’s Joplin Globe. Herb, one of the clearest political and economics thinkers I’ve read, is no ideologue, and yet here he is defending an increase in the minimum wage:

    . . . a congressional report released last May provides an estimate of the dollar value of welfare programs provided to Wal-Mart’s work force. They found that a single 300-person Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Wisconsin likely costs taxpayers more than $1.7 million per year for Medicaid, food stamps, WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), and other federal aid. That comes out to about $5,800 per Wal-Mart employee — and that’s just for one store!

    Now multiply Wal-Mart’s 1.4 million employees by $5,800 per worker and the total is almost $8.2 billion annually that we taxpayers are, in effect, subsidizing that company. That $5,800 also means that taxpayers add about $2.79 per hour per employee for government assistance programs, bringing the minimum up to $10.04. In other words, taxpayers provide 28 percent of benefits to employees not covered by Wal-Mart.

    Why does government provide that extra cushion? Progressives have done it to make a better society. Now, no doubt that Grover Norquist and other Randian purists would like to eliminate Medicaid, food stamps, WIC as well, but automation and third-world globalization are going to continue to eliminate good-paying jobs for the foreseeable future. So if that happened, I think we would see a society that would evoke Charles Dickens’ nineteenth-century London. No, Duane is right. Pragmatism is not to be found in forfeiting sensible principles to imaginary purity, but as Herb said later in his column, it is to be found in the kind of thinking that Henry Ford once applied when he raised his workers’ wages 65% so they themselves could afford the product they were building.


    • Jim,

      Thanks for the kind words. However, for clarity, I should note that the original title/headline for my commentary was “Wal-Mart, Taxpayers, and the Minimum Wage.” I was trying to make the point that, in the case of low paying jobs, we taxpayers are subsidizing those workers who need government aid just to survive. And these are not welfare queens or live-at-home teenagers. These are working folks who lost their jobs and are out busting their butts for their families while trying to climb back on the increasingly elusive ladder of success that once made America great.

      But instead of using my title, the Glob editors refocused the article with their own, “Minimum wage struggles don’t matter to big business.” On the contrary, I think minimum wage DOES matter to big business. They’re against it! In fact many of them would no doubt pay one dollar an hour if they could get away with it. But my point is that we taxpayers are having to fill the gap between a livable wage and the private sector’s profit objective. And we don’t get a vote because the private sector decision-makers are not elected by we the people.

      But I did like the way the Globe juxtaposed my Op-Ed with George Will’s the day before, titled “Is it time to raise the minimum wage? The answer is iffy.” I’m a little disappointed in ol’ George. His article was filled with red herrings, distortions, misrepresentations, and just plain lies. But, I get it. George and his fellow conservatives still live under the illusion that unfettered capitalism is the only viable economic system. What they don’t realize is that that ship has already sailed.



      • p.s., I found an interesting article about Walmart’s employee compensation on CNN Money, “Why Wal-Mart can afford to give its workers a 50% raise,” dated Nov. 12th.


        It involves some technical finance terminology and calculations, but if you can follow the math, it works. Walmart, in other words, is stingy and does not compensate its hourly employees at a rate equal to the contributions they make to Walmart’s return on equity.


        • A 50% raise for Walmart employees is an interesting idea, Herb, but I won’t be holding my breath until it happens. Despite some of the labor unrest, Walmart likely knows the price of employee loyalty is pretty low. Mollie and I have known some of the checkers at ours for about three decades. They just keep plugging along. Somehow. 😦


  3. ansonburlingame

     /  December 17, 2013

    OK, let’s compare Herb’s column to that from the previous day of Will’s. Ole George wins hands down for this conservative at least in a “pragmatic” sense. I give Herb credit for being a reasonably intelligent man, friend and writer. But he is NOT a “George Will”, either. It would be like me trying to write a column opposing one by Paul Krugman on economics and base that debate on our relative knowledge of and experience with economics. I would lose, hands down, but that would not make Krugman “right” either.

    Since when was it a federal government responsibility to pay good wages for private work? I decide to make a career of making widgets, go to school to learn how to do so, search for a job after graduation and go make widgets for a professional career. Where does government enter that picture?

    Well in my view at least, government enters the picture very early in the game, in the public education system, a government run system. Fail to educate me to make widgets and really crappy widgets are produced, if any are produced at all. We graduate today some 50% of our students (or more) that have no idea how to make a widget or have the desire to do so either. They just want to make money and have fun all their lives. Give government a big F in that venue, in my view.

    So now we have a “graduate” (forget the dropouts for a moment) that is a real slug. He does not know how to learn, does not want to learn, certainly does not want to work very hard and yet expects ……… from society. Remember, about 25% of “students” (nationally) fail to graduate and about 50% of those graduating know very little about “life” and how to prosper in it. As well about 75% of all Americans age 17-24 cannot even make the cut to get into the military at all, much less graduate from just boot camp alone!!! Is that not a sad state of affairs for a nation?

    Herb’s column was nothing more than more progress arm waving, in my view. People need more money to … and thus government should demand they get more money. But Will, on the other hand put some real numbers behind his point. Only 3% of “workers” receive MW. 2/3s of all MW earners receive a raise within one year. Some, a few, move on up the ladder of success to run the franchise, etc. and live “normal lives”, etc. Are those lies, distortions, etc.?

    And yes Jim, I too have friends that work in Wal Mart, quite a few that I know and see from time to time. Those folks LIKE their jobs there, get paid a living wage, work hard, stay with the company for years on end and live sensible and effective lives. But as well you and I could easily go into some corner of Wal Mart and find an employee on MW, one who came to work late, was high while working, bitched about everything and soon just quit with his middle finger in the air because he was being mistreated by his employer. Those kind of employees are all over America today and they start in American public education classrooms, learning such “job skills”!!! And government demands Wal Mart pay them $10 an hour, whether they produce $10 of anything in that hour!!!

    But if Will is wrong, well answer his last point. If workers really need more money despite not “earning it productively”, then why not raise the MW to $50 an hour instead of just $10. That should certainly boost a liberal economy, right? Or instead send the whole country into an inflationary sprial that will eat everyone’s lunch in a year or so!!

    But I must admit, finding a job that results in a 30% pay raise for doing NOTHING more than what was already being done (next to nothing) sure sounds like the kind of job for all to find, right. Just let government do it for us and not “us” ourselves.



    • @Anson,

      Your argument against raising the minimum wage is a straw man because you imply that it would invalidate the employers’ management prerogatives and would degrade employees motivations. None of that is true, unless, of course, you believe that Maslow was wrong about the hierarchy of needs. Once a level of need is supplied, that need no longer motivates as the individual moves up to another level. This theory has been widely accepted not just by psychologists but management educators. What that means is that setting a minimum wage has little to do with productivity but everything to do with improving the quality of society. Managers would still be free to hire, fire and promote as before.

      I agree that education is a big problem, but that has nothing to do with this. You are thinking, apparently, that the prospect of being limited to $7.25 an hour instead of $10 is going to motivate teen-aged “slugs” to try harder. The evidence is already in that it doesn’t. The prospect of making $10 an hour instead of $7.25 isn’t going to change young people’s motivations – that’s a different problem. It’s cultural, and it doesn’t motivate because the bottom tier of the hierarchy, basic food, clothing, shelter and safety, is already filled either way. In fact, I would venture that the average high-school graduate has such a poor grasp of math that they cannot judge the difference before they live it.

      But raising the minimum wage would diminish the general dependence on welfare programs and provide more dignity to the lives of many who are stuck because of age and lack of education near the bottom of the food chain. As for cutting jobs, I don’t believe that trope. The service industry is already trying to cut as many jobs as possible because that’s its biggest expense. If all employers need to pay the same, then the resultant slightly-higher costs borne by the customers should be offset by diminished costs in SNAP and other programs and the result would, I expect, be a happier society and a more efficient economy.


  4. ansonburlingame

     /  December 18, 2013

    I disagree that my points are straw men. The PROBLEM is many people cannot earn a “living wage” based on private hiring, wage and retention factors. Raising the MW does nothing to improve the quality of people working in the lowest rungs of the work place. It simply uses government force to pay them more money.

    If an individual wants to make more money in a job, earn a higher wage, it should be incumbent on the individual to be more productive in such work, make a larger contribution to the business. Setting some government imposed “floor” on wages with no consideration for how that individual contributes to the goal of any business is nothing more or less that government imposed “price controls”.

    You, as explained many times in these blogs, came from very humble origins. YOU worked to gain a good education. In fact you ENDURED the “agony” of just such a thing at a college that demanded real “rigor” in all that you did for four years. You then went on to a productive and challenging life and have been able to care for your sister as well and I am sure others around you as well. You CONTRIBUTED to society and you went through some degrees of “hell” to be able to do so.

    Why should THAT not be the challenge facing every student in America today? Yet the progressive approach is to throw other people’s money to “help” those that fail in such individual efforts to live “normal” lives. And throwing more money their way is NOT “fixing” the underlying problems in society. In fact throwing money at such people is EXPANDING the problem. Just look at “entitlement growth” over the last 60 years now.

    Oh, by the way, check a recent (today) column in the Globe about income distribution. The key to wealth in the top 10% seems to be primarily in gains in the stock market. Well great, just tax any stock sales at the 90% or more level and redistribute that. Also just raise corporate taxes really high as well and redistribute that. Raise the MW to a really high level also, one where everyone makes lots of money to live normally.

    Add in the death penalty imposed by mobs on the top 10% and welcome to France in 1789 or Russia in 1918 and see what you get in America today.

    I much prefer the traditional American approach. LEARN what it takes to be productive in your chosen field of work, work hard (to both learn and later work), behave yourself in all that you do, stop blaming others for your own failures and then do the best you can with what you have, with help from others when really needed. Now go into any high school in America and see if THOSE values are being taught and enforced, today in America, or any workplace as well.



  5. I’m not at all sure why I respond to you, Anson, but maybe it’s just to demonstrate to readers of these posts that these economic arguments are not the slam-dunk you try to make them.

    You said,

    Raising the MW does nothing to improve the quality of people working in the lowest rungs of the work place.

    Ah, but it does. That raise, if it were the $10/hour figure proposed to make up for years of stagnation, amounts to a 27% increase over the current minimum. I totally get your Horatio Alger speech on the merits of hard work and productivity. What you are doing of course is blaming the less fortunate by implying that their condition is the result of sloth and lack of ambition. You compare them to me who rose from a blue-collar family to a successful career, but I can honestly tell you it was something of a miracle that I ever got my appointment (my start), despite my hard work. And beside that point, it shouldn’t even need to be mentioned that school smarts and talent are hardly distributed evenly. As Duane often says, what kind of society do you want to have, one in which only the lucky and talented have any financial security and dignity?

    There are a few people who would fit your view, but there are many more who work long, hard, tedious hours for that minimum wage, and many of them are even part-timers with no benefits. They are people like Walmart stockers and checkers, and ladies on their feet all day cooking and waiting on people at delicatessens, and the like. Raising the minimum wage would at least provide more incentive for such people to keep on working rather than just giving up and turning to charity and social subsistence programs. Heck, you even implied that many of the unsuccessful are unpatriotic when you said,

    I much prefer the traditional American approach. LEARN what it takes to be productive in your chosen field of work, work hard (to both learn and later work), behave yourself in all that you do, stop blaming others for your own failures and then do the best you can with what you have, with help from others when really needed.

    I can just see you giving this speech to my lady friend at the delicatessen. (She probably votes GOP.)

    Then you made this interesting statement,

    Oh, by the way, check a recent (today) column in the Globe about income distribution. The key to wealth in the top 10% seems to be primarily in gains in the stock market. Well great, just tax any stock sales at the 90% or more level and redistribute that. Also just raise corporate taxes really high as well and redistribute that. Raise the MW to a really high level also, one where everyone makes lots of money to live normally.

    That is a clear straw man. Nobody is proposing a 90% income tax on capital gains and distributions and nobody is proposing to make the 47% rich at the expense of the 10%, nor turning America into 1918 Russia. What is proposed is to try to maintain a civilized society as it grapples with a rapidly evolving global economy in which good middle-class jobs are rapidly disappearing.

    Happy New Year, Anson.


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