The Political Price of Austerity

Most books about contemporary politics are designed for quick obsolescence. A notable exception to the rule is the work of Thomas Byrne Edsall, whose five careful books, starting with “The New Politics of Inequality” in 1984, are still found on the shelves and in the footnotes of everyone who writes about politics — left and right, academics and journalists alike. Edsall’s distinctive method combines his own reporting with rigorous use of data from across the social sciences, including psychology and anthropology. Though his previous book, “Building Red America,” seemed poorly timed when it appeared in 2006 just as Karl Rove’s quest for permanent Republican dominance collapsed, its insights into conservative attitudes about authority and autonomy remain as useful as anything written more recently about the Tea Party and the right-wing resurgence.

The great topic of Edsall’s life’s work is the breakdown of the New Deal-era liberal coalition at the intersection of race, resentment and inequality. While analysts often sharply distinguish economic from social issues, Edsall sees a “chain reaction,” to use the title of his 1991 book, in which race, economics and highly emotional topics like immigration interact to crush any real hope of a new progressive coalition. When minorities acquire new rights or benefits, it comes at a cost, real or perceived, for established white voters.

This story reads very differently in 2012 than it would have in 1984, when the “Reagan Democrats” defected from the New Deal coalition. Now it’s the children and even the grandchildren of the Reagan Democrats who make up the middle of the voting population, and a Rising American Electorate (in the pollster Stan Greenberg’s phrase) made up of professionals, unmarried women and young voters as well as blacks, Hispanics and Asians threatens to outnumber the old resentful whites. More than threatens — the Rising American Electorate won a presidential race in 2008, giving the Democratic candidate a majority of the vote for the first time since 1976. Edsall, a regular contributor to The New York Times’s “Campaign Stops” election blog, warns Democrats that this might have been a one-time-only event — and, indeed, the traditional American electorate made itself heard in 2010. The newer voters are more difficult to mobilize than older whites, and conservatives have become adept at activating the gut reactions of their voters. The buttons they push are those of race and immigration, and increasingly those of economics, which is now depicted in terms of absolutely incompatible worldviews. Consider Mitt Romney’s claim that President Obama believes in “equality of outcomes,” while real Americans believe in “equality of opportunity.”

One day we’ll look back and find such polarizing language strange, given the broad consensus in favor of a mixed economy with some regulation and a social safety net. It is scarcity, Edsall contends, that turns modest policy differences into zero-sum showdowns between his “haves” and aspiring “have-nots.” Drawing on predictions that the economist Lester Thurow made following an earlier “era of limits,” the late 1970s, he sees a long and ugly period of zero-sum conflict over immigration, education and programs that serve primarily low-income people or minorities, like disability benefits. Edsall’s “haves” are not the rich, but older conservatives who have “income from savings, which they do not want more heavily taxed, and their Medicare coverage and Social Security benefits, which they do not want diverted to ‘ObamaCare’ or any venture transferring tax dollars to those with lower incomes.” In Edsall’s framework, it no longer seems paradoxical that Republicans can simultaneously attack a government health program, propose to gut Medicare for those under 55, and pledge to protect that same program faithfully against Democratic cuts. In a climate of austerity and limits, struggling older voters cling all the more desperately to what they have, and are all the more willing to see that same thing denied to those who are not them or don’t look like them.

It’s not always clear, though, exactly what limits Edsall is talking about. That ambivalence is visible right on the cover: The title is “The Age of Austerity,” but the subtitle refers to “scarcity.” Throughout, Edsall uses the two words, scarcity and austerity, interchangeably. But they are not synonyms. Scarcity is a grim reality. Austerity, particularly fiscal austerity on the part of government, is a choice. Sometimes austerity is the appropriate response to scarcity, but sometimes, as in a recession, it’s not.

Edsall concentrates most of his attention on elective austerity, like cuts in programs for people with disabilities. These lend themselves well to his analysis, but they are not examples of actual scarcity. He attributes the “scarce supply” of tax dollars for public programs to the federal budget deficit, but in an extraordinarily wealthy nation with effective tax rates at their lowest level in decades and interest rates approaching zero, the decision to cut services rather than raise taxes or borrow is simply a choice not to spend available resources on those services.

Though Edsall gestures favorably toward the economist James K. Galbraith’s argument that long-term deficit projections are unreliable and unimportant, he still treats them as absolute constraints on spending, requiring “drastic action” to undo. But even if one doesn’t go as far as Galbraith, all it would take to bring the deficit into a manageable range would be a return to tax levels of the late 1990s, elimination of the preferential treatment of income from investments, and some systemic changes in health care delivery that would bring down Medicare costs. This is hardly drastic and need not come at much cost to Edsall’s “haves.” In any case, it’s worth considering a different explanation of our current impasse: representatives of the very wealthy (not Edsall’s “haves,” but several rungs higher) have been able to use their power to create a political dialogue in which austerity by choice creates a nasty, limited politics that leads only to more anger and division, closing out the possibility of real progress.

There are two real scarcities in our near future, and Edsall touches on both only lightly. The first is the limited supply of energy we can use without imperiling the planet. The second is the limited supply of the kind of jobs that once enabled millions of families with modest educations to move into the middle class. Economists increasingly agree that even after our current crisis ends, structural changes in the global economy will make it harder for those entering the work force to acquire the sort of moderately skilled jobs that boosted the Reagan Democrats of an earlier time. Addressing these problems requires both some sacrifice and some imagination. The concept of “green jobs” once offered hope of addressing both scarcities, but the effort to nurture new clean energy industries seems to have foundered on overstated promises and the unnecessary limits imposed by the politics of austerity.

While Edsall may be right that scarcity and austerity encourage conservative, backlash politics, it’s worth recalling how the previous “era of limits” came to an end: Jimmy Carter’s dour projections were supplanted by Ronald Reagan’s affable, optimistic “morning in America.” These days, both the economic news and the bitter, deadlocked political process have made it impossible for Obama or anyone else to paint a persuasive vision of a better future. Still, one can hope that the future of American politics will lie not with those who can best manipulate scarcity and austerity to their advantage, but with those who can construct a convincing alternative.