Saturday, March 2, 2013

Journey into the Land of No Meaning

I have ranted in the past about the incoherence of the "tighten the belt" metaphor and the mind-numbing inanity of the "-gate" suffix; however, I'd like to introduce a few more words and phrases that should kindly disappear from political rhetoric ("common sense," "balance) or be put under close supervision ("middle-class") because they have been used and abused into meaninglessness.

"Common sense":  The term "common sense" is a rhetorical device used to evade discussion.  The invocation of "common sense" implies that any rational individuals engaging in debate would ultimately come to your conclusion--if they did not already see it as prima facie.  There is no need, then, to provide any justification for the proposed solution, for it is simply the only one--the only "serious" one, at least.  Substantive debate requires invocations of facts (empirical data) or morals (priorities), and from those facts overlaid with morals---or morals buttressed by facts, we get policy proposals. 

Obama seems to love engaging in the fallacy of the argument from common sense.  We can see this in how he talks about gun safety legislation, immigration reform, and deficit reduction.

Even when I agree with a proposal described as a "common sense" solution, I cringe at hearing the vacuous modifier, the cheap trick for evading debate or staking out moral or empirical claims.

And it's always good to remember that what is sensible is not always common and what is common is not always sensible.

"Middle class":  All of our politicians love to deliver paeans to "The Middle-Class" and to talk about all of the wonderful things they plan to do to help "The Middle-Class."  But, one should ask, what does this term even mean?  Is it defined by income?  By education?  Clearly, the American class system is different from the British one in that we don't have a titled aristocracy.

The Department of Commerce, for one, has given up on defining the middle-class through income. In a 2010 report, it defined "middle class families" by "their aspirations more than their income."

"Middle class families and those aspiring to be part of the middle class want economic stability, a home and a secure retirement. They want to protect their children’s health and send them to college. They also want to own cars and take family vacations. However, aspirations alone are not enough; middle class families know that to achieve these goals they must work hard and save."

In other words, "The Middle-Class" consists of everyone who cares about their children's health and future and their own retirement and who want cars and vacations.  In other words, EVERYONE.

We see this loose definition of the "middle-class" in discussions about taxes.  The "fiscal cliff" deal was lauded by many Democrats as a "middle-class" tax cut; however, it cut taxes for incomes up to $400,000.  Apparently, according to Congress, $400,00 is apparently still "middle-class."

Rick Santorum hated the term "middle-class" because in his deluded mind the United States was a classless society.  Tell that, though, to his campaign website, which talked about how he would rebuild the middle-class.

The universal praise of and love for "The Middle-Class" reminds me of early 20th century analyses of why socialism never took off in the United States; writers like H. G. Wells saw the United States, which never had a hereditary aristocracy, as a thoroughly bourgeois nation, and an American Dream defined as "get rich" replaces class consciousness with material aspiration and elides the question of whether those aspirations ever turn into reality.

The idea of the "bourgeoisie of all" allows politicians to avoid addressing how both the continued existence of poverty and the vast inequality of wealth threaten the health of democracy---and to avoid having to think of solutions.

The word "middle-class" shouldn't disappear entirely from our political debate, but I'd say put it under close supervision until a politician is willing to give an actual definition.

"Balance": Obama loves to speak about "balanced" deficit reduction, and so do his surrogates.  The call for a "balanced" approach is a Democratic Party talking point because it sounds nice.  We all love "balance," right? 

What, however, does balance actually mean in the minds of those in the laboratory where political talking points are concocted?

Does it mean an equal amount of spending cuts and tax increases, a 1:1 ratio?  Let's look at the President's plan for reducing The Deficit and replacing sequestration.

The White House plan has $930 billion in spending cuts and $680 billion in tax increases.  That's a 1.37:1 ratio.  If you put 1.37 pounds on one side of a scale, and 1 pound on the other, THEY WOULD NOT BALANCE.

The White House infographic also highlights past deficit reduction measures:  $1.4 billion in cuts and roughly $600 billion in revenue.  That's a 2.3:1 ratio.  The 1.37:1 is only close to "balanced" if we take into perspective the glaringly unbalanced nature of the past rounds of deficit reduction.

It is worthy of note as well that the President's plan cuts more from Social Security and veterans' benefits ($130 billion from "superlative" CPI) than it does  from the defense budget ($100 billion). 

If we want a true 1:1 balance, then we have to go to the House Progressive Caucus's Balancing Act.

But, as we all know, that plan is DOA.

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