Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America

I read Why We're Liberals by Eric Altermann in part because of that Mamet essay that I found to be completely incoherent. I couldn’t follow what it was Mamet thought liberalism was and what exactly he was rejecting. Nothing he said sounded like liberalism, as I view it. That made me wonder whether I was making up a liberal philosophy that didn't match what other people believe liberalism is. But Alterman crystallizes it thusly (and this does match my idea of it):
Liberalism’s bedrock belief in personal freedom, of thoughts, of expression, and of action is derived from and defined by the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its children, a group that includes [Locke, Voltair, Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith, Jefferson, Paine and James Madison.] A liberal society strives to maximize these freedoms for the largest number of citizens while at the same time protecting the rights and interests of the minority, whose ideas of personal freedom may conflict with those of the majority. This focus on the freedom and the personal dignity of the individual fundamentally distinguishes liberalism from the tenets of both the religious right and the Marxist left, which stress instead unquestioned obedience to a higher authority for the benefit of the collective. Liberals find inherited and unquestioned belief systems – whether imposed by the Bible, the Koran, the Dialectic of History, or the Fatherland – to be anathema.
I wanted the whole of the book to be an unpacking of this: to walk through each of those philosopher/thinker's contributions to the liberal manifesto; to track its evolution; to compare and contrast it to conservative ideology; to describe how liberal ideals are reflected in policy.

But no. The lion’s share of the book is a listing of the nasty things right wing pundits accuse liberals of, followed by Alterman’s debunking or response. Altermann spends more space laying out the outrageous things the right wing pundits have said, than in his responses. My goodness. It truly is amazing to behold what comes out of the mouths of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

Nevertheless, I don’t regard this as particularly useful in answering the question of “why we’re liberals”. Essentially, Alterman answers the question “why don’t we agree with Coulter, Limbaugh et al?” I didn’t need to read his book for that.

And it is filled with logical fallacies. For example, he purports to point out that conservatives are hypocrites because red states are higher in a whole host of metrics of bad behavior (related to crime, substance abuse and sexual promiscuity), while at the same time supporting tough agendas against such behavior. Here is one example of the 16 presented: The per capita rate of violent crime in red states is 421 per 100,000. In blue states, it's 372 per 100,000. That doesn't prove that red state folks are hypocritical. Maybe these states have a larger crime-committing population and that affects their attitudes about crime and leads them to choose candidates with a tough-on-crime policy agenda which is typically the Republican candidates. Or maybe policies in blue states actually lead to lower crime. We can't tell. But we can tell that this stat is not proof that conservatives are hypocritical.

Still, there is interesting stuff in the book. For example, Alterman notes the fruits of liberal policies that other countries have reaped:
The workers of France, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Norway all ... enjoy higher productivity per hour worked than do U.S. workers. The reasons for this are myriad, but almost all of them contradict conservative conventional wisdom. According to conservative ideology, high tax rates are supposed to kill personal initiative and depress growth, but they are much higher and more progressive across Europe than in the U.S. Welfare payments – again, allegedly the means by which the personal initiative of poor people is destroyed – are based in Europe on universal entitlements, with little, if any, means-testing. Finally, union membership, also the bane of conservative propagandists in the United States, ranges from 70 percent of the workforce in Norway to over 95 percent of the workforce in Finland, more than six times its level in the United States.

While these societies are hardly utopias – much of Europe remains riven by apparently insoluble Islamic immigration crises and relatively high unemployment – the benefits provided by many if not most of these societies would, for most Americans, prove a wonder to behold. Despite the fact that Americans work nearly four hundred more hours a year than those famously industrious Germans, and more than workers in virtually every western European nation by a considerable margin, these same states somehow sponsor far more generous programs of training and job mobility, and pay generous unemployment benefits. Families receive periods of paid maternity and paternity leave. Europeans also enjoy high-quality public health and education provisions, and all manner of public services, from parks to efficient and inexpensive public transportation systems, that are not available anywhere in the United States. To give just one example, Denmark spends nearly one-third of its gross domestic product on government-run benefits and taxes its citizens at an equivalently high rate. Its top bracket is 63 percent, nearly double the highest rate in the United States. With these revenues, the state spends more than 5 percent of its GDP on the unemployed and more than 2 percent alone on its “flexicurity” label market programs to help retrain displaced workers. This compares with a feeble 0.16 percent in the United States
*, which is by far the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Partly as a result, in mid-2006 Denmark’s unemployment rate was just 3.6 percent, well below the 4.7 percent in the United States. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Denmark’s “Quality of Life” index proved superior to that of America as well, with advantages like universal health care and day care, and a poverty rate of just 4.3 percent, compared with 17.1 percent in the United States. (America has the second-worst record among OECD nations.) Meanwhile, Denmark is, at this writing, enjoying a small budget surplus, equal to approximately 0.65 percent of its GDP. The United States, meanwhile, is saddled with ever-exploding deficits, currently reaching 4.5 percent of GDP, and rising.

[Skipping a similar case for Finland]

American’s...welfare system, even in its most generous incarnation, raised poor incomes only moderately, and reduced the proportion of adults in poverty from 26.7 to 19.1 percent. In Germany, France and Italy, meanwhile, the proportion of adults in poverty hovers at around just 7 percent. . . . [W]hile roughly a quarter of all American children are condemned to grow up in poverty, the analogous proportions for the countries cited above are just 8.6, 7.4 and 10.5 percent. The lack of progress in this area in the United States is one reason American conservatives insist on making these programs so stingy. The truth is that, when it comes to social mobility, these European nations prove far more successful in providing what might be called “The Nordic Dream”. . . than the romantic notion of “the American Dream” that schoolchildren are taught to cherish. . . . According to two separate studies based on a set of data collected over a period of five decades the Nordic countries enjoy considerably greater degrees of social mobility than do Americans. In the United States, a son’s earnings are more than twice as likely to be closely related to those of his father than in most Nordic nations, and even Britain does a much better job at offering second-generation earners a higher probability of economic improvement than does the United States.
* I can’t tell from the text or the endnotes whether this figure for the U.S. takes into account the spending at the state level.  If not, he's probably not making an apples to apples comparison with the other countries.

Now, I think I know at least one of the things Scooter and Michael are thinking: “yeah, but what about the GDPs of those countries? GDP provides a picture of a nation’s wealth-generating engine (and we care about this because presumably wealth is a good thing) and the more socialist-tending a country is, the more anemic its economic engine. The purer capitalism is, the cheaper goods and services are, making more of them available to more people.” So here you go. I’ve plotted GDP per capita of the countries mentioned in the above quoted passages:
This shows that it is true that the U.S.’s GDP per capita is higher than almost all of these countries.

But the thing that I always wonder, and I think this is at the heart of liberal philosophy, is whether a more dynamic economic engine is the be-all end-all. Are human beings better off as a result of this better engine? To what extent does having access to cheaper, more plentiful goods provide real benefit?

What would be a key measure of the health and well-being of humans? How about life-expectancy? It’s not perfect or complete, but it must be a measure of the well-being of a species, reflecting intrinsically the degree to which basic needs for food and shelter are met and the level of health enjoyed (and that intrinsically reflects the level of stress the species endure, i.e. how difficult it is for us to meet our needs).

Below I add the life expectancy, in purple in the foreground, from each of these countries.
Let's take a look at the linear regression trend lines for GDP per capita and life expectancy.

Life expectancy varies inversely to GDP per capita.  It appears that the more productive we are the sooner we die. (And perhaps the farther we tend toward pure capitalism, the more stressful life is and the sooner we die?)

Let me acknowledge there are plenty of problems with my exercise, and I'm only offering it as a starting point for consideration. I'm open to any suggestions as to how to improve it. A few of the problems I recognize are:

a) my method of selecting the countries to include (i.e. the ones mentioned in these few paragraphs of Alterman’s book) may not be yielding a true picture of anything; I should re-do this using all countries. I would hypothesize that at the lowest end of the GDP spectrum we’d see the opposite trend: life expectancy increases with increasing GDP.

b) to show a correlation between purity of capitalism and life expectancy, I would need some way to characterize and quantify the degree of socialism within each country. By simply using Alterman’s list of countries providing lots of benefits, I’ve taken a short-cut that yields results that may not bear out with a more complete data set. Obviously, there are other countries that are are closer to pure socialism than these.

c) GDP per capita isn’t the sole measure of economic well-being.

d) length of life isn’t a full measure of the quality of life.

e)  correlation is not cause-and-effect.

No doubt, something like this, but with much greater rigor, has been done by economists.  Still, it's fun to play...

The data for the charts above is here:
The data comes from the CIA's World Factbook:

GDP is here:
Life expectancy is here:

Back to Why We’re Liberals, here are a few more factoids:
  • The United States is the only wealthy industrialized nation not to legislate any paid time off and holidays for its workforce.
  • The United States and South Africa are the only two developed countries in the world that do not provide health care for all of their citizens.
  • Gay marriage is the law in Belgium, the Netherlands and even Catholic Spain, while gay civil unions are officially recognized by Norway, Sweden, Iceland, France and Germany.
Some might assert that we needn't look to other countries to suggest what our own policies should be.  But I think these types of things are relevant to how countries will compete for the best workers, in the coming decades as nation states (and therefore citizenship) grows less relevant.
The book raises many other topics worthy of discussion, but they'll have to wait for another day.

[Update: see above]

1 comment:

Scooter said...

Well done. I disagree with about 80% of it but well done. Obviously, I'll need some time to put together a real rejoinder.