Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kevin Drum misses the mark

I just saw this via Twitter. Mother Jones's Kevin Drum correctly draws our attention to the fact that a large majority of American adults don't want Medicare to be gutted. I find that unsurprising, but it's indeed worth pointing out. But he misses the mark when he suggests that it would be "interesting" to know how "people" (which people? which class? etc.) would respond to the same question were it paired with options such as "higher taxes, lower taxes, etc.". I quote:
I'd like to see a followup that paired each option with the taxes it would require. In other words, your options would be:
  • Major changes & taxes about the same as today
  • Minor changes & higher taxes
  • No cost control & and significantly higher taxes

I'm willing to bet that the results would be roughly the same, with perhaps a chunk of the "no cost control" folks moving into the minor changes column.

But I might be wrong, so it would be worth finding out. These kinds of questions, after all, are pretty useless if they're not tied to anything else. I mean, who wouldn't be in favor of leaving everything the way it is if they don't understand that it might cost them more?

I have two things to say here. First of all, it's ideological and tendentious to put things in such general terms as "higher taxes" or "lower taxes". That's not how things work. The Republicans and Democrats, who've invested a lot of time and energy giving tax breaks to the rich in particular, know this. We need to know who is going to face higher taxes and who isn't. To remove class from the framing of the question is not to make the question more neutral. It is to skew it in a reprehensible way. It is to paper over very real (and, indeed, uncontroversial) facts about the way that wealth and income is distributed in our society. So we need to which taxes are to be raised, and who's going to pay them. Surely Drum doesn't think a flat-tax is better than a progressive tax. But if he thinks that, he should revise his suggestions since they have the same logic as a flat tax (i.e. make it impossible to only increase taxes on the rich).

Working class people justifiably worry about their taxes going up. Socialists don't dispute this. They don't like taxes as such. Now, to ask workers to sacrifice more in taxes isn't always a bad thing, depending on what they get in return (e.g. they pay more in taxes and get guaranteed health care, but cease to pay health insurance premiums that are much higher). But in general, it is a burden on working class and poor people to ask them to sacrifice more of their already small paychecks. Moreover they do all the work in this society and already pay their fair share... it's unjust and absurd to ask them to pay more. But for the well-to-do there is no comparable burden. We can use fancy economics language here: the law of diminishing marginal utility clearly entails that receiving $100 dollars when you're broke is of much greater significance than receiving $100 when you're Bill Gates. By the same token, losing $100 dollars is a tremendous burden to a poor person, but virtually negligible for Bill Gates. It is absurd to ignore all of this and talk abstractly about "higher taxes" as such, as though we were all already equal and on some level playing field wherein the question had the same significance for all of us.

Second, the original Medicare question was ideological as well. It frames things along a one-dimensional axis, where do nothing and do something are the options. I'm a socialist, and I probably endorse a "do quite a lot!" sort of position, but it's unclear that I share any common ground with Neanderthals like Paul Ryan who interpret "do quite a lot" to mean "gut Medicare like a trout". So the "major changes"/"minor changes"/"no changes" axis is already problematic. To be sure, we get some information from the question, since it is surely a more progressive position (in today's context, problematic though it is) to defend the Medicare status quo than to open it up to attack by reactionaries in both parties. But my point still stands: it is tendentious to frame things in this way, and it's not possible to express a preference for vastly increasing Medicare service in such a poll. That it is not on the political agenda right now is a separate problem. What the poll should try to do is find out what people really want- that way we can, in a non-question-begging way, determine the gap (which is sure to be quite large!) between people's aspirations and the reality of our political system.

1 comment:

JM said...

Some have given up on Mother Jones entirely: