Paul Ryan (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Paul Ryan is an absolute joke: The facts and numbers make it clear -- GOP economic plans are an absolute fantasy

The politics of poverty are so delusional and hopeless because one side is just pretending to care


Paul Rosenberg
April 2, 2016 5:30PM (UTC)

Paul Ryan has increasingly emerged as the GOP's salvation figure. Not this year, of course. He's made that very clear.  But as the party's presidential primary has gone completely off the rails, Ryan's stature in the eyes of those who count has risen accordingly. If anyone can guide them out of whatever wilderness lies ahead, Ryan's the one they look to now. But, as Digby wrote here recently, what sets Ryan apart from the primary clown car catastrophe is style, not substance. “It’s a positive step that Ryan thinks it’s a good idea to be more respectful of our fellow citizens,” she noted. “But he’s going to have to dig a lot more deeply if he wants to cure what ails his party.”

In one way Ryan is willing to dig more deeply — he's willing to at least talk about policy in a reasonable-sounding way. But in the end, that “reasonable-sounding way” is not far removed from truthiness. The problem is, a lot of elites in both parties just eat that sort of truthiness up. And therein lies a danger more subtle and profound than the garish dangers grabbing campaign headlines every day. When bipartisan elites come together and agree on how to cure poverty, for example, it's instinctively less revolting than talk about “winners” and “losers” or “makers” and “takers”.  But since their policies are all doomed to fail, they are more of a political narcotic than anything else, which is to say, their allure is immediate, while their danger takes time to mature.

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Case in point: In early December, Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute claimed to have produced a bipartisan consensus plan for reducing poverty.  There was only one tiny problem with it: it wouldn't work.  Indeed, the same could be said about the mish-mash of GOP ideas aired under Paul Ryan's leadership in January at the Kemp Foundation poverty forum in Columbia, South Carolina. While some ideas — like expanding the earned income tax credit — could help marginally, GOP tax and budget plans would decimate safety net programs, which have increased their poverty-cutting effectiveness nearly tenfold since 1967. Ryan's widely-favored plan to block-grant programs to the states would very likely increase poverty, not reduce it.  No matter. When it comes to fighting poverty, the last thing our political class cares about is something that actually works. The image of action is all that really matters. Results are irrelevant. America's sky-high poverty rate must remain a personal problem of the poor, which different leaders, from time to time, will heroically try to do something about — or at least think about it.  And when they're feeling really moral, they'll even get bipartisan about it.

Here at Salon, Sean Illing criticized the delusional futility of Ryan's policy making efforts: 

The GOP isn’t a “proposition party,” because that’s not what Republican voters want. Getting things done in Congress is impossible without compromise, and that’s a heresy in today’s GOP.

It’s not surprising that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz attended this event.

But the problem is actually much deeper, and it applies to elites in both parties, not just the GOP base. In fact, Trump's fantasy-based, hyper-individualistic, winners-vs-losers rhetoric is much more the epitome of everything dysfunctional than it is any sort of outlier, exception or counterweight.  The only real counterweight out there is self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, because countries that embrace democratic socialism have actually succeed in making poverty much lower than here in the U.S. And there's nothing wild-eyed or experimental involved. There're decades of data showing that their ideas work.

To understand why our poverty politics is so delusional — not just on its flamboyant side — it helps to go back to the Brookings/AEI “consensus” report, and understand just what's wrong with it. Blogging for Demos,  Matt Bruenig offered the clearest explanation of why it was doomed to fail. One by one, he showed why each of the three main policy pillars — education, work, and marriage — could not deliver as promised. While all three solutions might sound appealing — and even seem to make sense for individuals, to varying degrees — they're already proven failures for society at large, not least because societies are complex systems, much more than the sum of their individual parts.

Education doesn't fix poverty, Bruenig explained, because we've already tried that and it didn't work. As people have become better and better educated over the past 20 years or so [chart], poverty rates for each level of education have increased over time [chart], so that we now have “the most educated poor in history.”

Work-promotion doesn't fix poverty because most poor folks can't work any more than they already do. Most poor people (60-65%) are either disabled, too old or young to work or students, Bruenig pointed out, with two other large chunks being unpaid caregivers and the working poor. Add in the short-term unemployed — an inevitable feature of a capitalist economy — and there simply aren't many poor people left to promote work for, other than raising the minimum wage to help the working poor.

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Marriage promotion doesn't fix poverty, because we've already tried that, too, and because other countries do much better fighting poverty without it, Bruenig noted. Our married-family poverty rates are six to seven times (or more) that of Nordic, democratic socialist countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland [chart]. In fact, our married-family poverty rates are higher than their single-parent poverty rates [chart]. An obvious explanation: our abysmally low level of spending on child-related family benefits compared to other countries [chart].

The Brookings/AEI report was the product of a 15-member working group over a period of 14 months and ran 85 pages. Bruenig's three blog posts (though reflecting long experience) were produced much more rapidly by just one person, yet they quickly tore the report to shreds — a clear indication that something was deeply and seriously wrong with the entire Brookings/AEI approach. Bruenig's posts had more detail, and additional arguments beyond those described, but the essentials I've cited were all that was necessary to completely destroy the report's entire orientation, much less its specific conclusions.

Along the way, Bruenig did take note of what would work — the reference to Nordic countries' success, for example, or the implicit critique in the post on education, when he wrote, "The big things that cause poverty for adults over the age of 25 in a low-welfare capitalist society — old-age, disability, unemployment, having children — do not go away just because you have a better degree" [emphasis added]. But he fully spelled it out in the post on work, where he titled a whole section, “How About the Welfare State Instead?”

Brookings and AEI were right in one respect, he wrote, “most poor people do not work or maybe only work a limited amount,” but they're wrong to think work promotion can work, for the reasons mentioned above, which Bruenig explained in more detail. Which led him to say:

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In these circumstances, the actually effective anti-poverty approach is the welfare state. Providing adequate transfer incomes for children, elderly, disabled, students, carers, and the unemployed is the more serious anti-poverty solution here. And, not surprisingly, this is what the lowest poverty countries in the world do.

The Brookings/AEI consensus presumably avoids reaching the obvious pro-welfare conclusion because they believe it is inconsistent with their three stated guiding values: Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security. But these are bad values that are being weaponized to exclude good anti-poverty policy. If you really want to cut poverty to the bone, what you should do is replace those three values with the value of Equality, and come out for the welfare state.

Perhaps those guiding values aren't bad values per se, but they are badly misleading at best. (Plus, they are definitely bad in that they lead us to do bad things, turning our backs on what actually helps people.) The reason is fairly simple: they're conceived in a very limited framework, based on anecdotes and individual-level moral arguments. But whole societies and how they are shaped are much more complicated than simple aggregates of individual cases and morality tales. And any decent social scientist knows this. It's social science 101.

Which raises another question about the Brookings/AEI report: What are deeply knowledgeable folks — like Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, or Columbia's Jane Waldfogel — doing with their names attached to such a deeply flawed report? The question occurred to Bruenig, too, and it figured into a follow-up post he wrote two weeks later.

In that post, Bruenig first made the point that the document's pedigree was not as ideologically broad as advertised:

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Brookings is not at all a liberal think tank when it comes to poverty. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a liberal poverty think tank. So is Center for American Progress. Brookings is not.

To make his point, he ran down a few details of the history of Brookings' Ron Haskins, a report co-author:

Haskins biggest policy idea in his career was to fight poverty by dramatically cutting cash assistance to the poorest families with children. He got this idea implemented via Welfare Reform, and extreme $2-a-day poverty has jumped 150% since that time.

In his 2006 book about the inside story of welfare reform, Haskins effusively recounts the "glorious morning" after the 1994 Republican landslide election when he came to realize that Welfare Reform was coming. Finally, he reflected, the "beauties of block grants" were going to be unleashed onto this country by Speaker Gingrich, whose election Haskins had to restrain himself from "gloating" too much about.

With “liberals” like that, who needs conservatives? Only in the elite media bubble could such a figure be considered “liberal.”  But with that as the “liberal” side, was it any wonder that as another section in Bruenig's post announced, “A Bad Process Produced Bad Results”?  In fact, he wrote:

The Brookings/AEI report was a roundly conservative document. In fact, it was so uniformly conservative and indistinguishable from any normal GOP document on poverty reduction that Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post read it (reasonably) as a sign that liberals had finally come to realize that conservative poverty ideas are the correct ones.

Getting back to my point made earlier, Bruenig noted, 'some of the progressive names on the report are strange, given what I know of their views” which “are very much for welfare expansion,” despite the complete absence of welfare from the report's proposals. So he reached out anonymously to ask what happened:

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The answer I got was that the process was the problem. It wasn't that these people didn't propose their welfare ideas. Rather, it was that they could not get the overall group to sign on to them. Thus, the ideas didn't make it to the end product.

This is how "bipartisan consensus" works:

Conservatives would come to the table with the idea of increasing marriage, work, and education, like always. Since liberals don't oppose those things as bad in themselves, they are fine allowing them in the report. Liberals would come to the table with the idea of increasing welfare benefits through the expansion of Social Security or child benefits. Conservatives would completely veto those things because they are adamantly against more welfare. As a result of this one-sided veto, the only thing that the overall group would come to a consensus on are the conservative things that liberals are OK with (but harbor doubts about how likely they are to succeed and how adequate they will be on their own).

You may call that a consensus, and in some warped sense perhaps it is. But only in a sense that ultimately corrupts the very meaning of the word: Liberals gave up their ideas, which are known to work, while conservatives gave up nothing. In fact, as Bruenig goes on to note, the report itself, in the chapter on “facts,” acknowledges that all the gains in reducing poverty since the 1960s come from the welfare state side [Bruenig's chart].  So here we have a “consensus” to do one thing while the agreed-upon facts point to doing something else.  It's one thing for conservatives to spurn reality-based policy making. It's considerably worse for liberals to join them in a consensus rejection of reality. But that's exactly what the Brookings/AEI report has done.

Naturally, the report itself tried to present a very positive picture of what it was doing:

The only way forward, we believe, is to work together. No side has a monopoly on the truth, but each side can block legislative action. We therefore created a working group of top experts on poverty, evenly balanced between progressives and conservatives (and including a few centrists).

But in this case, one side does have a monopoly on truth: the welfare state is where all the poverty-reduction gains have come from since the 1960s. It's also how other countries — like Norway, Sweden, and Finland — manage to drastically outperform us in reducing poverty.  Those are the facts. Period. Coming to a “consensus” that ignores the facts is an accomplishment that only an Orwellian kind of centrism could celebrate. And that's exactly what we have here.  The report's self-congratulatory reverie continues:

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We worked together for fourteen months, drawing on principles designed to maximize civility, trust, and open-mindedness within the group. We knew that the final product would reflect compromises made by people of good will and differing views.

Not everyone involved in the process was a social science or poverty expert. In particular, the passage just quoted seems to reflect the influence of co-author Jonathan Haidt, who has made his name arguing for the idea that liberals and conservatives have different notions of morality, and that liberals need to be actively more inclusive, embracing conservative moral concerns in order to make a better world.  Haidt's book, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," “shows why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns,” according to the publisher, and he's vigorously campaigning for affirmative action for conservatives in order to create a "post-partisan social psychology."

Given the gridlock that's gripped our nation, it can sound very appealing. Haidt may have a valid point that conservatives harbor moral concerns — such as “purity” — that liberals should be open to considering and exploring. But Haidt's argument readily devolves into a de facto version of the middle ground fallacy. Respecting conservatives' concerns is a far cry from allowing them to veto facts, just because they deeply wish they were not true. The Catholic Church tried that with Galileo, and they're still trying to live that one down. The utter, transparent failure of the Brookings/AEI report tells us something Haidt seems to have forgotten: facts matter, even if they're upsetting — sometimes even because they're upsetting.

By advancing a concern for bringing people together over a concern for facts — despite claims to the opposite: “As policy analysts and social scientists, we share a commitment to collecting empirical evidence and then developing and revising public policy based on that evidence” — the Brookings/AEI report clearly demonstrates a crucial flaw in Haidt's argument: It's an approach far more likely to strengthen and spuriously validate conservative hostility to precisely the sorts of culturally challenging, innovative ideas that would actually make for a better world. After all, today's conservatives embrace a vast array of liberal, even radical ideas that their ideological forbearers denounced as alien, dangerous, even demonic — in short, impure.

The report babbles on, in blissful ignorance of what it's actually doing. Whatever Haidt's specific role in the process, the next few sentences clearly echo his thinking:

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In addition to the political diversity of its authors, our report is unusual in a second way: it is based on shared values. While working together, we discovered that the key to our cooperation was to recognize that policy is often infused with moral values, and we identified three that we believe all Americans share: opportunity, responsibility, and security.

These are the values Bruenig mentioned earlier, the values that in turn lead to the three failed strategies he quickly demolished. Meanwhile, in blissful ignorance, they went on to write:

If our diverse group can come together to support a comprehensive and far-reaching set of proposals, based on shared values, we believe our report can find support across the political spectrum in Washington and in state capitals.

Of course, their wish here is entirely possible — precisely because the elite political class as a whole is so disastrously out of touch, not only with the facts but with the will of the people as well. The facts show that a strong welfare state is indispensable for reducing poverty, and decades of public opinion research shows strong public support for specific spending, even among conservatives and Republicans.

The key poverty-fighting role of the welfare state becomes overwhelmingly obvious if one simply looks beyond our borders to the world at large. Early last year, I contrasted the narrow, parochial view of poverty in America to the much broader, more sophisticated understanding reflected in the international comparative literature derived from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) data. One LIS working paper, “United States Poverty in a Cross-National Context,” compared the U.S. to 10 other countries. The U.S. had "30 percent higher average incomes, but 68 percent higher poverty rate," I noted. Another paper, “Policies to Reduce Child Poverty: Child Allowances Versus Tax Exemptions for Children,” according to the website’s summary, found that "a $3,000-$4,000 child allowance would reduce child poverty in the US to the level of other developed nations and, due to the costs associated with child poverty, be a cost effective policy change.” [Emphasis added.] A third paper, “Structural Theory and Relative Poverty in Rich Western Democracies, 1969-2000,” examined three types of explanation for poverty levels, and found that welfare state strength was clearly the most important.

It considered five structural factors ("manufacturing employment," etc.), three economic factors and two welfare state factors. In terms of sheer numbers in poverty, structural factors had more impact than economic growth — the only economic factor that matters — but less impact than the welfare state. In terms of intensity — the number in poverty times the depth of poverty they were in — the paper concluded, “the welfare state has a much larger influence than economic growth, and the insignificant structural and other economic variables.” The paper went on to conclude, “[T]he welfare state is fundamentally a political outcome. As a result, poverty is a political outcome as well.”

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Finally, another paper, “Putting Poverty in Political Context: A Multi-Level Analysis of Working-Aged Poverty Across 18 Affluent Democracies,” quantified the impacts of welfare state strength. The paper found that “For each standard deviation increase in welfare generosity, the odds of poverty decline by a factor of 2.3. The odds of poverty in the U.S. (the least generous welfare state) are greater by a factor of 16.6 than a person with identical characteristics in Denmark (the most generous welfare state).”

So there you have it: the most powerful anti-poverty program America could have is a one-way ticket to Denmark — at least if you're determined to stay fixated on individual-level thinking. But since we can't simply fly everyone to Denmark, the paper had something more to tell — that welfare state generosity is in turn a result of political effort, in two forms that of "Leftist [labor or socialist] parties and union density." The paper notes:

  • If the U.S. had either average or the highest level of union density (i.e. Sweden, see Table 2), the odds of poverty would decline by a factor of either 1.61 or 4.65.
  • If the U.S. had average Leftist party power or the highest level (i.e. Sweden, see Table 2) [rather than a score of zero], the odds of poverty would decline by a factor of 2.25 or 12.96.

Of course, we can be sure that the Orwellian “conservatives of good will” would rather die than consider such options. But why should anyone else give them cover for their doomed-to-fail policies? Why not make the political effort needed to succeed? Bernie Sanders says we need a political revolution, and the cold hard facts agree.

One reason Donald Trump is doing so well in his race for president is that he doesn't buy into the GOP orthodoxy when it comes to cutting Social Security, which, along with Medicare, remains extremely popular with the GOP base, as it does with all Americans. (Since 2000, just 18.1% of self-described extreme conservatives think we're spending too much on one or both, according to the General Social Survey, while 52.6% think we're spending too little.)

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Trump is hardly consistent, however, in reflecting the economic populism of his base. In November at the Fox Business Network debate, Trump said he'd leave the minimum wage where it is ($7.25). In late December, he quickly flip-flopped when Bernie Sanders called him out on it — first vehemently accusing Sanders of lying — a stark  indication of how vulnerable he is to Sanders. But it's worth noting precisely how Trump first responded, because that reflects how similar to the GOP establishment his instinctive attitude toward the poor actually is — even the working poor.

Neil Cavuto asked if he was “sympathetic to the protesters” fighting for a $15 minimum wage. “I can’t be, Neil” was Trump's response, because America is “being beaten on every front economically, militarily.” Trump, of course, had a “tremendous plan” for cutting taxes to fix this, he assured everyone:

But, taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it [the minimum wage] the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum.

There could not be a more perfect expression of the basic conservative mindset: (1) poverty is an individual problem, (2) that government can't do anything about (3) without hurting, even endangering, America, (4) but those who “work really hard” can pull themselves out of poverty, and “get into that upper stratum.” So, either it's impossible to do anything about poverty, or else Trump's advocating a Lake Woebegone plan: It will all work out just fine, provided that everyone's above average!

For all of Trump's harrumphing against the GOP establishment, neither Romney nor Bush nor any other recent GOP presidential hopeful could have put the fatalistic conservative view of poverty any better than that. But it's not a view shared by the base, which is why Trump covered his ass so fast the minute that Sanders called him on it. 

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The fact that Sanders is consistent, where Trump is all over the map, is just one indication of why Sanders increasingly does better against Trump than Clinton does.  He clearly and unambiguously reflects the majority of American voters who are economic populists and support a strong welfare state, regardless of their ideology.

The focus here on poverty is only part of the broader overall question of economic fairness and justice, but it's a vitally important part, and we can't realistically talk about any aspect of the economy as long as our thinking about poverty distorts our thinking about economics as a whole. Our thinking is distorted both by stigmatizing the poor, and by limiting our thinking to the individual level, as well as by freezing it in time.  Bruenig's three posts criticizing the AEI/Brookings report show how easy it is to poke holes in such thinking, but the ease with which he does that should be deeply troubling to us, for it is evidence of how willfully blind the political establishment has become, how even knowledgeable liberal social scientists have allowed themselves to be hijacked in the name of “consensus.”

Is it any wonder, then, that we're more in need of a change election than ever? And that well-mannered Paul Ryan is even more of a Pied Piper figure than boorish Donald Trump?


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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